Blair's "meritocracy"

Tony Blair claimed to want to create a genuinely meritocratic society in which those who rise to the top do so because of talent and ability rather than a privileged background. As Blair put it,

“New Labour’s big idea is the development of human potential, the belief that there is talent and ability and caring in each individual that often lies unnurtured or discouraged.”

Blair desires a “just and fair society where life’s chances are given to all”.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Blair is right about that untapped potential. I used to be a postman, working on the sorting office floor for four years. Then my life chances changed and I ended up an academic teaching and researching at a number of Oxford colleges. I have taught philosophy to Etonians and foreign royals. I’ve run admissions interviews there too, so I know how the system works. I believe the children of the upper middle classes have no more native wit and intelligence than the rest.

Most of us left-leaning middle-class people have two opinions about the lower classes. There’s our “official” position, which is that those living on the council estate down the road are certainly not inferior to us in terms of native talent and ability (heaven forbid!)

Dig down a bit, however, and I suspect you’ll find yourself harbouring a slightly less savoury view. It’s not just that we middle classes are the fortunate beneficiaries of better life-chances and a better education. Yes, there may be one or two bright people living on that council estate, but generally speaking, we’re a breed apart, aren’t we? Something akin to natural selection has divided society roughly along class lines into the more and less able. That’s what many right-wingers believe, though they generally admit it only to each other. And it is, I suspect, what the rest of us broadsheet readers believe too, if we're honest with ourselves. Go on. Tell the truth. Isn’t that what you really think?

It must be what Blair thinks. How else can he believe we can create a genuine meritocracy without nobbling private education – one of the main mechanism by which the upper-middle classes retain their stranglehold on wealth and power?

Blair’s view must be that the current system is already not far off being meritocratic and that, generally speaking, the top positions are already populated by the most talented. The fact that these people invariably turn out to be privately educated upper-middle class folk is down to the fact that the lower orders are, generally speaking, congenitally less able. The system just needs tweaking a bit so that the odd bright council-estate lass can rise more easily through the ranks.

In my experience (purely anecdotal evidence, I admit), privately educated children do not have any more native talent and intelligence than the rest.

It’s just that, deep down, they think they do. They come out of private education brimming with a confidence and belief in their own self-worth that one rarely finds among the state-educated. They know they’re going to get decent jobs and earn decent money. And they feel sure they deserve it, too.

I believe that, if we really want a meritocracy in this country, there is only one solution. That solution requires we remove that mechanism which, perhaps more than any other, allows a small elite to hand down privilege from generation to generation at the expense of everyone else: private education.

Those who bang on about wanting a genuine meritocracy should cast an eye around the boardrooms of big business. They should select at random a few doctors, lawyers and government ministers. Yes, there’s the occasional grammar school lad, the odd barrow-boy-done-good. But the vast majority is drawn from a small and privileged pool. A few children rise inexorably above the rest, not because they have more talent and ability, but because their parents bought them a leg up at everyone else’s expense. That’s profoundly unfair.

Of course, whoever said life was fair? The trouble is that the present system is not just unjust, it’s also damaging both to the economy and to society. Those who are most talented and able are not where they should be – they languish as caretakers and security operatives while second-rate hooray Henries get to cash in and work the levers of power.

If we genuinely want a meritocracy, then we need to end private education. There's no realistic prospect of raising the standards of state schools to a similar level (and even if there was, the rich would simply invest still more, to retain the differential).

Let's end private education. Or else let's just stop pretending that we desire a “meritocracy”.

In which case, it will have turned out that New Labour's "big idea" was a big fib.


Anonymous said…
It's really no different from the old assertion that coloured people were inherently less intelligent than whites!

Of course it'll take a fair bit to overthrow the current system and you can hardly blame people for playing the game as it's set up. If I had the chance to give my kids a leg up I would do so, regardless of whether my preferred option would be a level playing field for all. I strongly suspect I'm not alone in this.
Larry Hamelin said…
I think the notion of a meritocracy is flawed, at least in the current Western capitalist context.

There is probably some range of talent and innate characteristics in human beings, and these characteristics can have economic consequences. The problem though is that one person can be no more than ten (or perhaps a hundred times at the outside) better than another on any measure. We see, however, a ten-million-fold range of economic reward and opportunity. As I note in my recent essay, we should conclude that the United States' 300+ billionaires are worth more than 90-95% of the people of China put together. There is no fair and just way to determine placement into a system that is inherently unfair and unjust.

As I mentioned before, it is a plausible alternative hypothesis that the private schools exist only as a marker of class, and the primary purpose of class is to maintain loyalty to the system. Take away the marker status of private schools and the upper classes will simply choose a different marker.

After all, we cannot allow progressive socialists into the upper classes, no matter how smart they are.
Having grown up on a council estate in a working class family, I noticed other problems within the working class itself that leads to an enormous waste of potential. There is a pervading view that wanting to rise above a factory job is just dreaming. The working class themselves seem to be reluctant to enter into a world they see (or claim to see) as somehow weak or out of touch with reality. What would your school friends have said to you Stephen if you had told them you wanted to study philosophy? My own father to this day would prefer me to be working in a factory in my home town rather than my current job (I am a software developer in Dublin - granted, I'm not sure he has even the vaguest notion of what that means). I got critisism rather than support when I went to college. The rest of my family is more progressive and it is thanks largely to my mother's more sensible view of the world that I got to go to college at all. Even with the rest of my family though I am reluctant to mention the fact that I have a blog and debate online. The eye-rolling is grating.

This anti-intellectual ethos needs to be overcome or many talented people from the lower rungs of society simply won't apply for college places even if they could get them. It is difficult also to describe to a lot of people what no money means. To many, the idea of being broke is to not be able to afford to take a foreign holiday this year. To many people, having no money means having zero disposable income and barely enough to manage the nessesities. It is hard to even attend college coming from that kind of background.
Dispite all that, I would welcome the abolition of private schooling. It might well be just a marker of wealth as the Bum points out but I can see no harm in removing it anyway. I can't help but imagine that these school serve to some degree as the incubators to the kind of superiority thinking Stephen was describing.
NAL said…
The class system in England is too ingrained to completely eradicate. It starts at the top, with the monarchy. The monarchy is the ultimate symbol of the class system.

Instead of trying to raise the standards of all the state schools, raise the standards of a subset of them. Like the "magnet" schools in the US.

At the university level, in the US, the best state schools rival the best private schools.
DrBen said…
Nal, an apparently similar system does exist in Britain. The Specialist School system (a New Labour invention) which gives extra funding to schools that specialise in a particular area. My own school became a specialist in science not long after I left and the ones next door specialised in engineering and drama and physical eduction. As to whether it makes a difference I cannot be sure. As my school was an all boys school and the engineering school was all girls it would seem odd to assume that a child is free to go to whichever school best suits their interests. Regardless I might suggest that the brilliance of some magnet schools is based upon their entrance criteria more than anything else.

There are two education authorities that I know of in the country that retain Grammar Schools. My own was one, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to one. I still struggle with the question of whether this is unfair or not. It is more fair in terms of class although most of the upper-middle class children went to one of the two entirely unnecessary local private schools thereby bypassing the selection system. However my biggest worry has always been what happens to those who did not pass the 11+ exam and who were not allowed entrance. There were numerous comprehensive schools around the place (comprehensive being a laughable term with private and grammar schools around the place) none of which had terrible results but all of which were miles below the two grammar schools.

The class basis of those in the school varied but I do not know of anybody who was in the situation that the celtic chimp mentions. I fear that people might have moved to the town specifically to be within the schools' catchment areas thereby nullifying the major intention of the grammar school system and of course it is only the more affluent in society who can afford to move house for such reasons.

Grammar schools seem to me an excellent way for poorer people to realise their full potential. Indeed a very high proportion of students from each of the local schools' sixth forms went on to top universities. Nal mentions how some state schools in the US are as good as some private schools, perhaps I might mention that my school has for the past 2 years been the highest placed school in Yorkshire on A-level results beating many prestigious private schools.

I honestly however cannot say whether Grammar Schools are the answer to this unfairness. I fear too much for what will happen to those who do not pass the entrance criteria as I imagine their life chances may be restricted even further than if a selective system did not exist.
Scott said…
I think we need to ask what the outcome would be if private schools were abolished. (That's presuming it would even get through Parliament and the House of Lords.)

Surely the Private School fees will just be spent elsewhere? You'd have pupils coming finishing the day at school, then getting home tutoring in the evening. Will it make a difference if the top universities start taking this into account?

Imagine a society is set up called the Former Tutors of Private Education. For a fee (that only privileged families can afford) they give extra lessons and help, culminating at the end in a formal certificate from their board to signify passing. Now it would only take top universities and employers to recognise this certification and we're back with the same problem.

I can't see how that wouldn't occur? There's too much money in private education to expect all of the teachers to take state jobs, and if they do have "ingrained" preferences over class of students this must lend strength to this line of thought.

The alternative is to persuade students in state schools that they are more than good enough to get into the higher universities and jobs. If they are at least as good as their rivals they should rise to the top part of the pile. Where they will inevitably pick people from similar backgrounds.

I'm from a working a working class background myself so I'm all for balancing the scales here.

Just a quick anecdote of my own before I go. I applied to Cambridge and upon entering the room for my interview I introduced myself, and was met with "Oh yes... the builder." Although they were very nice I got the distinct impression from this their minds had been made up prior to actually meeting me. Admittedly I could have just been a dreadful applicant!
Stephen Law said…
The Former Tutors of Private Education must be outlawed!
Anonymous said…
But why should the working classes even share the aspirations of the middle classes? What's so good about being a doctor, lawyer, accountant, businessman, philosopher?

Why would anyone want to be Prime Minister rather than a gas-fitter and what on earth is wrong with aspiring to be a postman?

Stephen in your post you mentioned the confidence middle and upper class kids have that they will succeed. But what is success? Is it being an investor on the Dragon's Den? Or being a candidate for The Apprentice? A model or celebrity perhaps?

I'm not trying to romanticise working class life but I certainly am questioning the New Labour notion of success... What's with all the striving?!?

We should aim for safety, security, shelter, food, health, good relationships, a degree of stimulation and a good amount of playtime... but running the country? No thanks...
Anonymous said…
"Let's end private education."

Or, better yet, lets privatise all education.
Anonymous said…
Stephen, I would LOVE to hear more about how in the world you made the transition from working in a mailroom to teaching at Oxford! I think it would be very inspiring!
Joe Otten said…
I notice we don't have the same problem with universities. You can't buy your way into a good university, although obviously you can derive advantage from a school you buy into before that.

So why can't we do the university thing, whatever that is, with schools, before the whole 13 years of bought privilege takes its toll?

Obvious objections welcome, but note that this is doable with universities, and nothing had to be banned. Fantastic.
Anonymous said…
Re universities - the obvious differences are selection, exclusion and compulsion. Most who attend university get their on merit and wish to be there, and universities exclude those whom have not shown sufficient ability to enter.
Joe Otten said…
Indeed, John, so maybe schools should be like that too.

The alternative - the banning of buying or selling anything that might bring educational advantage - books, museum trips, nintendo brain-games, television sets, computers - is preposterous.

I must say my experience of school was pretty bad, until 6th form, when all those who didn't want to be there and just messed it up for the rest of us, had left.
If we look at education as the only route into the professions (law, medicine, politics etc.) then most would agree that it is the last qualification you obtained that is the deciding factor. For most; this would be a university degree. As entrance into university is generally based on merit (allowing of course for the university to select people to fill up its quota of disabled, homosexual, religious, ethnic students...) - then surely private education is no longer the problem it was. The government has introduced the EMA allowance - entitling poorer A-Level students to £30 a week if they attend college for two years plus bonuses. Surely this is better than going straight into a job - a free ride for two years. And there are incentives within this scheme for good grades. Yes private schooling can help wealthier students get into universities - but there are also other routes for state students; such as foundation courses. Oh, and summer schools. These six week courses enable students who live locally, or whose parents did not attend university, or live in a particular postcode - to enter good universities with C grades rather than A grades. This aims at letting less advantaged children (socially) to enter university with poorer qualifications - to sort of even things up with the private school education.

Of course - there are many who then argue - that the working class, poorer children just can't afford to go to university! Nonsense! With all the new government financing; there is no excuse for those in the working classes to claim they cannot afford to attend. With tuition fees paid for, grants and bursaries of up to £4,000 (as well as maintenance loans of around £4,000) - a student whose parents earn less than around £27,000 does not even need a part-time job!!! They'll receive hand-outs totalling around £15,000.

For those whose parents earn around £40,000 however - they have to pay their own fees and get only the maintenance allowance which is around £3,100 - this equates to a year's rent if you want to live away from home. A part-time job is the only way to afford books, transport, clothes, food, bills and the occasional pint.

For those whose household is over £80,000 - naturally their parents can afford to pay their way through university with generous pocket money handouts.

What Blair means by a "just and fair society where life's chances are given to all" - is really just a way of making the working class a little bit better educated - whilst worsening the chances of the lower/middle classes; making them worse off than their parents.
James James said…
("It's really no different from the old assertion that coloured people were inherently less intelligent than whites!"
I've been researching this recently and it's not clear to me which side is correct. Anyway,)

"we need to end private education. There's no realistic prospect of raising the standards of state schools to a similar level"
Absolutely false. Look at Sweden or the Netherlands. It's very simple: we need a voucher system. I found the following article linked to on the Adam Smith Institute blog:

The ASI are big proponents of vouchers:

The Swedish system is the best.

"'Let's end private education.'
'Or, better yet, lets privatise all education.'" All schools should be independent. All Local Education Authorities should be abolished. Anyone should be able to found a school and run it however they like (maybe some very minimal requirements like no creationism). Everyone should be able to go to any school they want, with the state paying a flat rate (extra for disabilities etc). There are good arguments for and against top-ups, not sure whether I support or oppose them yet.

"Re universities - the obvious differences are selection, exclusion and compulsion. Most who attend university get their on merit and wish to be there, and universities exclude those whom have not shown sufficient ability to enter.'
'Indeed, John, so maybe schools should be like that too.'"
Quite. There are people at my university who oppose selection at secondary school, but for some reason never reply when I ask them if they oppose it for universities. Pulling the ladder up behind you?...
Schools should be able to select, expel people (and other schools not admit them if they've heard they're really naughty, and no one should be forced to go to school at any age.
James James said…
Two points from Simon Heffer
1. People who send their kids to private school are not necessarily rich. They're not extremely poor, obviously, but we're not all upper-middle-class.
2. Private schools save the state money.

"Anyone with children in private schools - and I have two - knows that the stereotype of gilded youths whose parents' Rollers are double-parked by cloistered buildings is rubbish.

Only last Sunday, at one of my children's schools, I found myself having a conversation with another parent whose car was about to be sold in favour of a much smaller one, to mitigate the high cost of fuel. I know other people who have remortgaged their houses and taken part-time jobs to help pay their children's fees.

It is not uncommon, at some of the richer public schools, to hear that around a third of children are being helped with their fees. Such parents do not seek sympathy: they have made a choice and must, literally, pay for it. But their sacrifice is something the Tories should take note of, and for one very good reason at least.

The latest estimate is that 671,000 children, or 7 per cent of the school population, are educated privately. It is calculated that this saves the country £3.5 billion a year - based on a revenue cost of over £4,000 per pupil in the state sector, which excludes capital investment figures - or a third more than the sum Gordon Brown had so recklessly to borrow last week to bribe the electorate after his 10p tax debacle.

Were these children suddenly to move into the state sector, it simply could not cope. There would be no extra revenue either, for their parents are already paying taxes for a service they do not use."
Anonymous said…
Stephen you mention that "priviledged" children leave home with "self-worth" that other less priviledged children simply do not have. In life I feel we "need" to obtain what I call "external worth," (when I say "need" I refer to the fact that this has become a pre-requisit for happiness). To be breif, we "need" to have value/feel valuable and we obtain this externally.

In my opinion one of the greatest ways human beings have learnt to feel valuable is through being loved, truelly and deeply. What can be better for a child, than having the support of a dearly loving family, and good close friends that all want the best for them? If a family is loving, good, they will want and ENSURE the best for their child, educationally, emotionally, mentally and physically, WHATEVER the social class.

Not all children have access to a loving family, WHATEVER the class, and in my opinion this is hidden immensely more easily in the upper/middle classes. Psychologically speaking, motivation, encouragement and love foster potential more than anything else.

Putting aside my argument, that love is a pre-requisite for "success", pressuming, in general, the average family's of the extreme classes
give their children, in general, and for sake of a better way of putting it, "roughly the same amount of love", it seems fair to say that educational advantages allow some children to excel in studies better than others.

But, as it has been implied, this may have more to do with social expectation than it has to do with school sector. I firmly believe social expectation plays a large role in career choice and how well children do at school: Private schools are a consequence of social expectation. I don't believe in social expectation and I certainly don't believe in private education either.

Paul made a point about "working class families looking at certain jobs as if they were a dream, and almost sneering at certain professions. Many "working class faimiles" have this attitude- I've heard about people laughing at being a doctor- how are their children ever going to want to be a doctor, or even attempt to do well at school if their families have this attitude? In my opinion, people live their lives filling the expectations of society. Some people will just never attempt above this. On the other hand, educated families, independent of whether they privately educate their children or not, impose different expectations on them. If your "Daddy is a doctor" it is likely you will want to "be one too" or strive for a similar career path.

Obviosuly this is not always the case. Some "working class" families bring their child up to expect the best, privately educate their children or send them to a good state school. Compare this to the days when going to university was a middle class thing, and this seems like a good situation, but it is not. What we choose to do is influenced too heavily by expectation- what if a wealthy privately educated girl wanted to become a plumber(p.s not that this is a bad job, let's say her family had expected something more academic like medicine)- do you really think she would find it easy to tell her Brain surgeon and dentist parents, who wanted her to do similar?

I rest that social expectation influences people to privately educate their children and strive for them to do PARTICULAR professions, which is why, yes, their may be more privately educated doctors or lawyers. They are no more priviledged- they haven't really got the choice to be a mechanic or a dancer have they?

Private education, I agree, prevents us from acheiveing a classless society, however, I doubt this will impact unless social expectations are eradicated. What real difference is there, between a good grammar/comprehensive school and a private school? We don't need private schools. We need a higher average standard of state education for all and a change of attitude. We should do what makes US happy, not what society destines. Richer educated people (not all) need to stop getting so much value and, as you said "self-worth" from being richer than other people. Sometimes this has nothing to do with wealth or education, even poorer people get flashy cars to immitate wealth and "success." Anything is possible, I say screw today's society, break the chains.
Anonymous said…
There's no realistic prospect of raising the standards of state schools to a similar level (and even if there was, the rich would simply invest still more, to retain the differential).

I'm not so sure this is true - I think there comes a point of diminishing returns with money poured into education, so t a vast increase in the money spent on state education (a more politically reachable goal) would hugely reduce the differential with private schools pretty much no matter how much the rich spent on them.
Anonymous said…
"a small elite to hand down privilege from generation to generation at the expense of everyone else: private education."

I think I may have misunderstood, what do you mean by 'at the expense of everyone else'. Apparently the only private schools that are being left are the ones that qualify for charitable (doing a certain amount of public help/service) status. What do private schools take 'at the expense of everyone else?'

I would love an answer,
Paul P said…
Let's be fair: you WANT life to be fair.
There is no economical reason in your thesis. You admit that the rich will always invest more in their education, and that what they really get from it is confidence.
But hey, confidence IS what succes is all about.! It is what economy needs! People who have the guts to try anything until they got what they know they deserve.
Otherwise, we would still be harvesting wild berries in the bushes (It's a long discussion, but my feeling is that the wheel was not invented by a talented shy guy, but by a self-confident son of the chieftain with too much time and a will to impress the local Venuses).
So, be honest: it's the unfairness of it that you want to ban. Understandable. And utopic.
(All leftists that want things fair now disguise their feelings in economic terms - it seems that simple good will is so out of fashion!)