Expanding grammar schools in the UK perpetuates the dangerous myth of meritocracy

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Lifting the ban on new grammar schools is part of Theresa May’s desire for “Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy[1] and today marks the end of the public consultation the Government launched on this issue.

But if the expansion of grammar schools marks progress towards a more meritocratic society is this necessarily a good thing? Michael Young, social reformer, innovator  and founder of the Young Foundation, would argue not. Young, originator of the term ‘meritocracy’, would be despairing at May’s proposals. Nearly 60 years since the publication of his seminal book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, in which he criticises the tripartite education system, and selective education is now being reconsidered. And 15 years since he expressed his unease with the misinterpretation of the term by Blair’s Government, the myth of meritocracy continues and endures in political discourse.

Theresa May argues that a selective education system is egalitarian as it “builds a country that truly works for everyone, not just the privileged few[2]” but this view is dangerous because as Young stated in 2001:

“With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before[3].”

Fortunately, critical analysis of the concept of ‘meritocracy’ does continue to have traction. Just last week Prof Robert H. Frank, launched his new book, Success and Luck: good fortune and the myth of meritocracy, in which he argues that the luckiest thing that can happen to any of us is to be born to the right parents in the right place at the right time. Frank’s week was taken up with series of debates on this issue with a range of eminent speakers including Ed Miliband, MP and Prof Richard G Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level and co-founder of The Equality Trust, at LSE, the RSA and the New Economics Foundation.

Evidence from recent Education Policy Institute and Sutton Trust reports also highlight how selective schools can accentuate existing structural inequalities. The Education Policy Institute find no evidence that grammar schools have a positive impact on social mobility, whilst the Sutton Trust report highlights how ethnic background plays a significant role in grammar school entry, with both white and black working class children significantly underrepresented compared to those from Chinese and other Asian communities. In addition, students from families who are ‘just-about-managing’ (JAMs), are much less likely to gain a place than their better-off classmates.

The Government’s consultation does however demonstrate willing to explore ways in which a selective system could be fairer, and it is vitally important they properly do so before considering expansion.

This is the view that Michael Young would have no doubt supported. Whilst The Rise of the Meritocracy was critical of an education system where merit is defined as “IQ plus effort”, Young broadly supported rewards based on merit but only if underpinned by greater equality in opportunities. This is evident through his support for widening access to higher education through his creation of the Open University.

The Young Foundation run the Young Academy, to support the growth of social ventures that aim to improve the educational opportunities of disadvantaged young people in England. The ventures we support are attempting to offer an alternative for the education system, alternatives which attempt to close rather than increase inequality in education.

Performance in Context (PiC) is one such venture we have incubated and invested in. PiC founders originally started upReach, an educational social innovation which supports undergraduates from less-privileged backgrounds to secure top jobs through helping them to build their knowledge, soft skills, networks and work experience. However they realised that it was not enough to simply “better the player” but that “the game” itself could be systematically changed through enabling recruiters to understand performance in context[4]. PiC therefore aims to improve social mobility by using open data to put performance into context, and help universities and employers make more informed student recruitment decisions.

Not only do innovations like these work to tackle the underlying causes of inequality through providing its players with equal equipment, they are also attempting to level the playing field by challenging and disrupting the game in which we are players. Something Michael Young would have supported.

So is it possible to ever make a selective education system fair if we want to truly tackle inequalities?

And as the Government continues to believe in the benefits of meritocracy what narratives and evidence need to be created to counter this pervasive school of thought?



[1] Liu, Y. (2016) ‘Theresa May’s meritocracy theory holds little promise of creating a fair society’ Business Insider UK. 7 October 2016. Available at: <http://uk.businessinsider.com/theresa-mays-meritocracy-theory-holds-little-promise-of-creating-a-fair-soceity-2016-10>

[2] Lui, Y. (2016)

[3] Young. M. (2001) ‘Down with meritocracy’ Guardian. 29 June 2001. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/29/comment>

[4] Nesta (2015) ‘Get to know the Jobs Open Data Challenge Finalists: PiC’. 30 April 2015. Available online: <http://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/get-know-jobs-open-data-challenge-finalists-pic>


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