The Rise of the Meritocracy is a fable, a satire on the tripartite education system of the time which packed off the most schoolwork-adept children to grammar schools. If there were places – better not to be a clever girl in those times. It's written as if from the standpoint of 2024, describing a social revolution started in 1870 which led to completely different life experiences based on IQ. In this imagined future Britain is a ‘true meritocracy of talent’ where status is distributed according to a formula: ‘I.Q + Effort = Merit’. All this before algorithms had taken over.
The winners, the meritocrats, the lucky ones enjoyed high status and better salaries enhanced by free holidays, drink, servants, culture, restaurants and so on. Children were tested and chosen for this path younger and younger, and the unlucky were trained to be sportspeople or technicians or domestic servants. By the end of Young’s tale the meritocrats have become a distant, heartless and largely hereditary ruling caste. Like all satires, it was a warning. Hmm, I wonder.
We think we’re great at irony in Britain, but as someone else said, it’s a heavy freight to carry. Politicians of all sorts barnacled themselves to the idea of meritocracy as if it was a universal good, as positive cover for socially legitimate inequalities and not an invented word to describe a grave social mistake. David Cameron and Theresa May particularly loved it.
Young invents commissions and reports as part of his imagined history. The ‘Clauson Committee 1988’, for example ‘took the view that by that date about a third of all adults were unemployable in the ordinary economy’. Any social comment includes the words ‘a third’ seizes me, not because I’m triskaphobic but because of our current situation. Grade boundaries at GCSE are set so that a third of all children have to score below grade four, the so-called pass level. Ergo, a third of them have to fail every year no matter what mark they get. Hmm again.
The book imagines a crisis in this meritocracy, led by women, in the 21st century. These protesters resurrect a previously-discarded vision of ‘common schools’ which:
should have enough good teachers so that all children should have individual care and stimulus. They could then develop at their own pace to their own particular fulfilment. The schools would not segregate the like but mingle the unlike; by promoting diversity within unity, they would teach respect for the infinite human differences which are not the least of mankind’s virtues.
A comprehensive school aims to establish a school community in which pupils over the whole ability range and with different interests and backgrounds can be encouraged to mix with each other, gaining stimulus from the contacts and learning tolerance and understanding in the process.
Meritocracy is a dog-whistle to the already-privileged. Last year I read philosopher Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. He says:
Those who celebrate the meritocratic ideal… ignore…the morally unattractive attitudes the meritocratic ethic promotes among the winners and also among the losers. Among the winners it generates hubris, among the losers, humiliation and resentment.
It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes
But what would happen if we really looked at the link between poverty and school success, between poverty and school attendance? What would happen if we, nationally, decided to put enough money into the system to resource it. What would happen if we had enough teachers, and an examination system that recognised endeavour and progress without fixing the grade boundaries so a third have to fail? What would happen if we never used the words ‘pass’ and ‘fail’ at school, ever?
A Year Seven put me on the spot in exasperation at the end of the second week. Standing at the busy crossroads on the block four stairs he’d lost his bearings and demanded "Miss, is it this way or that way?" I needed furthers and betters in order to assist, but I liked his approach. Politicians and the nation have to make choices. Both directions are not acceptable. Keep an eye on this meritocracy word: it was never designed to help change the world for the better.