If the government's vision of a new raft of selective schools to create a meritocracy comes true, it will cement the UK's dire inequality, says James Bloodworth
By James Bloodworth
When a politician talks about “meritocracy”, they don’t really mean it.
UK prime minister Theresa May and her party have been doing a lot of this to bolster their call for a new generation of grammar schools. But a meritocracy is as impossible to create as ice cream that doesn’t melt.
By definition, it is a society where the most talented rise to the top and are allowed to enjoy the plentiful rewards once there. It would invariably be grossly unequal, which creates its own problems.
We already know that the bigger the gap between rich and poor, the less conducive a society is to equality of opportunity. The developed countries with the best rates of social mobility
also happen to be the most equal
(think Norway, Sweden and Canada). Meanwhile, in the unequal UK, a child’s future earnings are more likely
to reflect their father’s than they are in any other developed country.
Meritocracies are unequal
Even if a meritocracy were practicable, it would be a deeply unpleasant place. Aside from the negative impact that inequality can have on the health of a society
– people live longer
in nations with less inequality – a meritocracy would psychologically devalue the lives of the poor by implying that they get what they deserve.
Grammar schools illustrate this on a micro level. They are fundamentally based on an elitist premise: that schools ought to concentrate on selecting a handful of pupils for greatness while condemning the rest to a second-rate education.
Do we really want history to repeat itself? When Labour education minister Anthony Crosland set out to abolish grammar schools in the 1960s, there was no eruption of public outrage. There was, in fact, widespread concurrence with Crosland’s wish to “destroy every fucking grammar school” in the country.
Gender inequality in grammar schools was rife – with more places for boys than girls – and there were increasingly prominent examples of adults who failed the 11-plus exams when children yet went on to demonstrate ”merit”.
So why might grammar schools sound like an attractive proposition in 2016? Perhaps it is because parents of today’s pupils are too young to remember the old system as it actually existed.
A romantic penumbra surrounds selective schooling based on the idea of a golden age of social mobility from the end of the second world war to the 1970s. Examples of working-class children ascending the ranks of society and entering the professions are bound up with the idea of the grammar school.
In reality, it had more to do with structural transformation of the economy at the time – the professions were rapidly expanding, creating more room at the top.
You don’t need to go back to the post-war period to find evidence of the failure of grammar schools to create opportunity based on merit rather than privilege.
Selective education still exists in several places including Buckinghamshire, but the evidence is that poorer children lose out to wealthier peers and attainment gaps between them are bigger than in areas without grammars
. A recent study
found that private-school pupils in Buckinghamshire were two-and-a-half times as likely to pass the 11-plus as their state-school peers.
Across the 36 local authorities where selection at 11 still exists, just 3 per cent of pupils who make the grade get free school meals
(such pupils comprise 18 per cent of all pupils). In contrast, on average almost 13 per cent are from the fee-paying sector but in some grammar areas that rises to 33 per cent
(private pupils make up just 6 per cent of all school children). The hiring of private tutors is also rife among better off parents of state pupils.
It should be clear, then, that grammar schools are not vehicles of social mobility. There is no reason to think that a new generation of them will be any different.
It would be far better to concentrate on improving the comprehensive system where, until recently, results for poorer kids were steadily improving
From Brexit to the Corbynistas, British political life is currently enthralled by a meretricious politics of the past. The nostalgic desire to return to a 1950s-style education system is no different.
James Bloodworth is a London-based writer and author of The Myth of Meritocracy (Biteback Publishing)