Meritocracy, social mobility and grammar schools

By Bernadette Meaden
September 10, 2016

Theresa May’s attempt to bring back grammar schools seems to be either one of two things. It may be a political move to keep a certain section of the electorate happy post-referendum, in which case it seems successful. Nigel Farage has tweeted, " Government now supporting creation of new grammar schools. Another flagship UKIP policy goes mainstream."

Or perhaps Mrs. May really believes that creating more grammar schools will lead to increased social mobility and make Britain "a great meritocracy". If so, it is interesting to look at these two concepts, meritocracy and social mobility, a little more closely.

The term meritocracy was coined in 1958 by Michael Young, for his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, a satire "meant to be a warning …against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033."

Young described a society, a Meritocracy, in which IQ+Effort=Merit. Political influence was dependent on this Merit, and all was based on a selective education system. The system produced winners and losers, and the winners gained an ever-increasing advantage over the losers, leaving behind an underclass. Hence the final revolt, in 2033.

For the man who coined the word, meritocracy was certainly not a good thing. Young was dismayed that Tony Blair had embraced the idea, and as the salaries and bonuses of bankers and top executives grew ever larger said, "If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get."

Implicit in the idea of meritocracy was the belief that people who don’t ‘get on’ must lack merit.As Young said, "It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that."

The notion of social mobility is also far less straightforward than it may at first appear. It depends on the assumption that there is a level of society from which everybody should desire to escape. What defines this undesirable social position is, primarily, a low income. Yet the people on low incomes do some of the most vital work in society. They care for our elderly, they clean our hospitals, they deliver our goods and take away our rubbish. Without them society would grind to a halt. No matter how much social mobility there is, these jobs will still exist and we will still need people to do them. We should be raising the income and the status of such workers, rather than implying that they have failed to be socially mobile, or have not succeeded in a meritocracy.

Last year, the government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reported  that there was a "glass floor" in British society, which means that for the wealthy, social mobility only works one way. It reported that, "children from more advantaged social backgrounds who are assessed at age five as having low cognitive ability are nonetheless significantly more likely to become high earners than their high ability peers in lower income households. Children from high income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age five are 35 per cent more likely to be high earners as adults than children from poorer families who show early signs of high ability."

Education is obviously just one factor here, and arguably not the largest factor. Children growing up in poor households may never have the opportunity to gain the confidence, experiences, connections and skills that even low ability children in high income households can acquire. Ask any teacher in a disadvantaged area about this. Even free museums can be out of the reach of children whose parents can’t give them the bus fare. If the Prime Minister wants to improve educational attainment for children from poor families, the most effective thing she can do is to stop them being poor by raising household incomes.

Every person should be able to reach their full potential in education, regardless of background. Every person should have their lives enriched by the excitement and pleasure of learning. But to promote education as primarily a means to escape the privations of an unjust labour market and an unjust economy, whilst allowing that labour market and that economy to remain unjust, reveals a rather diminished notion of education, and may suggest an abandonment of some destined never to escape.


 © Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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