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The truth about meritocracy: it doesn’t make society fairer

At the core of Theresa May’s reasons for lifting the ban on new grammar schools in September was, the prime minister argued, her desire for “Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy”. Reiterating this again at the Conservative Party conference a month later, she said that she wants to “build a country that truly works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

By mining a recurrent theme of British politicians with her focus on meritocracy, May argues that by rewarding those who excel and work hard, her government will build a fair society in a country left fractured after the Brexit vote. But she should beware: educational meritocracy is a facade that holds little promise of creating an equitable or egalitarian society.

Meritocratic dystopia

It was Michael Young – father of the journalist and free school founder Toby Young – who first coined the term "meritocracy” in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. It was also Young, ironically, who provided its first full-blown critique. His book is now best known as a satire on a future society where merit is defined as “IQ plus effort” and social stratification determined by IQ testing. Young’s book is clearly no manifesto for meritocracy and it holds out little prospect that meritocratic forms of selection will necessarily be equitable, let alone egalitarian. But there is also a more positive message in the book about improving equality of opportunity as a means to make meritocracy more acceptable.

In practice, Young’s ideas on equality of opportunity were primarily focused on educational opportunities. As an egalitarian, he deplored Britain’s divisive system of secondary schools to which children were selected through the 11+ exam, based on narrow measurements of IQ. He therefore supported the development of non-selective comprehensive secondary schools to replace the tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. He also supported wider social access to higher education through his promotion of an Open University which was finally inaugurated by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964.

So Young broadly supported rewards based on merit, but only when underpinned by greater equality in opportunities. What he did not support was a narrow form of meritocracy where merit was judged according to the results of unreliable forms of IQ testing leading to highly unequal forms of education. He was disappointed to find the term meritocracy, which he had coined, being widely taken up as an ideal by the Tony Blair government without awareness of the problems which had been shown to attend it.

May: a bright future for the chosen. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Politically attractive

The political attractions of meritocracy are evident and it has been widely accepted as an important element in the ideology of various centre-left parties in Europe. Meritocracy was identified by the European Union as a key characteristic of educational and social policy to look out for within former Soviet-block countries aiming to enter the European project.

In China, the Gaokao, a highly selective entrance examination for the higher education system, was re-introduced in 1977 after the country’s chaotic ten-year Cultural Revolution. As my new research has shown, by promoting the Gaokao as a mechanism for meritocratic selection, the Chinese Communist Party was seen as taking a groundbreaking step away from social selection based on political affiliation. But while the Gaokao selection test purported to represent meritocratic selection, in fact it legitimised the privileges of those new elites who seized new political and economic power as China went through a period of market reform.

The Gaokao has meant that lower social groups, such as the working class and peasants who lost their previous social security and welfare, believe that if young people fail the exams or only achieve access to non-prestigious institutions, they are of inferior intelligence. It has stopped them challenging the unfairness of a system that means the children of urban professionals and political elites are more likely to have access to better higher education opportunities. At the same time, it has minimised the importance of the state spending money on policies that would reduce social inequality among different regions and between the rural and the urban.

A fairer society?

May is now using the promise of a new educational meritocracy as part of her appeal to the “just managing” – at time when persistent social inequality and Brexit have led to division. But it’s not clear if and how a new set of grammar schools will provide more opportunities for upward social mobility for working-class children.

Yet, we can draw from Young’s predictions about what a mature meritocracy would look like. Social status would be determined exclusively by a narrowly defined system of merit, and social inequality for those left behind is a necessary byproduct of rewarding those who excel. This allows no alibis for failure and is likely to be a harsher and more unforgiving type of class society than what preceded it.

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