Obviously, if you’re not an aristocrat you’re something else and plebeian isn’t a friendly word, as the MP for Sutton Coldfield discovered on his bicycle. The other Michael Young – the sociologist not the curriculum thinker – invented ‘meritocracy’ in 1958 to help us consider alternatives in an egregiously unequal society. What happens, he said, if merit isn’t birth but is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, if its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications? What if the obvious by-product of such a meritocracy – letting the devil take the hindmost – is the best way to order society? Theresa May isn’t saying that, of course. Certainly not.
But the quantification, test-scoring and qualifications happened in any case via the language of deliverance to the whole of state education, to see if it was working or not. Perverse incentives followed and the honourable pursuit of educating the nation’s young was devalued by bungling. I’ve said it until I am actually, OMG literally, blue in the face: if you measure a school using the same calibration as you measure a child’s results, then the results are king and the child is forgotten. We have to find a way of measuring what we do that is strong and steady enough to carry the weight of society’s hopes for the future. This year? Will a Progress Score centred on zero do it? (‘What do we want for our schools? Nothing’). But, instead of seeing if this works, another structural diversion has been plonked into the middle of the road.
Furthermore, Mrs May has robbed me of one of my glibber aphorisms. ‘Meritocracy’ I used to rant ‘just gets you a cabinet full of Old Etonians.’ This new cabinet is startlingly state educated (hurrah!) and want to make Britain fairer by opening the gate to meritocracy to the children of the poor. Surely it’s churlish to keep objecting?
Human beings have merit because they exist. Children have merit by being born. There is nothing that adds or detracts from the merit of a child’s life. An unreliable test score highly influenced by family prosperity and taken on one day does not ascribe merit. Winning the FA cup is a meritorious thing to do. Finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, organising a Tenants’ Association, standing up against bullies or winning the Nobel Prize for Literature all have merit, but so do people who have done none of those things. The merit of the child is that he contains within himself everything about humanity. A child does not have to earn worth: she deserves it because she is a tiny thing, a sticky toddler, a noisy infant, a furious fourteen-year-old, a glorious, glamorous nearly-adult ready to take on the world.
A comprehensive school is a work of art, a vision every bit as worthy as the NHS and every bit as hard to make work. Every generation understands more about human worth. Our education system has to understand this and change the world for the better. We need support and understanding and a commitment to the worth and value of every child so that we can help every single one of them fulfil their potential. Of course, if private schools were abolished so that politicians’ children met disadvantaged children, and all schools were properly funded, that would be a progress.
Education is difficult and complicated and can’t be tied to the insights of the past. The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, blessings upon her mortar board, understands that too. She’s looked the Consultation in its shifty eye and declined to be dragooned. ‘We have no experience running schools. There are many wonderful teachers and head teachers throughout the country and I think it’s frankly insulting to them to suggest that a university can come in and do what they are working very hard to do and in many cases doing it exceptionally well.’
I demonstrated my exceptionality by telling Charlie he had his sweatshirt on back-to-front. In a muffled manner he told me that he preferred the wavy lines to the writing, but I think his mind was on football when he got dressed. His classmate Hayley asked me how I coped with the bleakness of existence. I told her Tallis loves optimism, so we had to laugh. Nicky admired my silver boots and the GCSE Maths retake test. Mr Tomlin and I discussed the great mysteries of life and agreed that his questions were more important than mine (‘Is there a God?’ vs ‘Why do girls need to regroup and hug immediately after assembly?’).
Any listener to Desert Island Discs knows that the Prime Minister is a High Church Anglican. She should have a deep understanding of the theology of the incarnation, of the immanent eternal worth of the human child. That’s religious language but it’s what good schools do every day. There’s merit in that.