Enemies of promise? Education, culture and meritocracy under the Conservatives

The argument for restoring ‘traditional’ forms of education is based on dubious claims about social justice. Why the argument for meritocracy needs to be challenged. 

One of the most exasperating aspects of current neoconservative rhetoric about education is the way it has appropriated the idea of social justice. From this perspective, it is the ‘progressives’ on the liberal left who are, in Michael Gove’s words, ‘the enemies of promise’. The reason why working-class children (as well as some ethnic minority groups) are continuing to do poorly in education is nothing to do with broader inequalities in society. On the contrary, it is because they have been betrayed by fashionable educational ideologies. Liberal teachers, brainwashed by the romantic hippies and Marxists who apparently run teacher training colleges, have deliberately denied disadvantaged children access to the ‘powerful knowledge’ and ‘cultural capital’ that characterise a proper education.

As Ken Jones eloquently suggests, this artful political theft was fundamental to Michael Gove’s populist ‘revolution’ in education:

Policies based on [Gove’s] principles would ‘provide children with the opportunity to transcend the circumstances of their birth’, ‘spreading knowledge to every open mind’. He claimed to be for the poor, against the privileged; for a good education for everyone, against the growth of intellectually un-rewarding and functionally valueless vocational qualifications. In short, he attempted to make ‘social justice’ the property of Conservatism, and to win the argument that established knowledge traditions were a means by which social justice in education could be realised.

This argument is based on a kind of travesty of history, which has very little concrete evidence. The relationship between rates of social mobility and changing educational practices is complex, to say the least. If anything, it would seem that social mobility has declined since the 1990s, when the first generation of Conservative educational reforms was introduced. Of course, there are a great many other factors at stake here; but the claim that progressive education systematically reinforces inequalities is simply without foundation.

As I’ve shown in previous posts, this story also depends upon a deficit model of ‘disadvantaged’ children, which sees them as culturally deprived. While middle-class children apparently have access to knowledge and culture at home, working-class children do not. Daisy Christodoulou, one of the leading advocates of this argument, states this quite baldly in her book Seven Myths About Education: ‘Pupils from educated families will bring a great deal of knowledge to the classroom,’ she writes. ‘Pupils from uneducated and immigrant families will bring less knowledge.’ Providing such children with access to (particular forms of) knowledge will, the neoconservatives argue, result in upward social mobility, and ultimately greater social equality.

What is the place of teaching about culture in this argument? Let’s look at a couple of examples. Here is Gove himself, in a speech delivered at Cambridge University in 2011:

We may not all be able to inherit good looks or great houses, but all of us are heir to the amazing intellectual achievements of our ancestors. We can all marvel at the genius of Pythagoras, or Wagner, share in the brilliance of Shakespeare or Newton, delve deeper into the mysteries of human nature through Balzac or Pinker, by taking the trouble to be educated.

I believe that denying any child access to that amazing legacy, that treasure-house of wonder, delight, stimulation and enchantment by failing to educate them to the utmost of their abilities is as great a crime as raiding their parents’ bank accounts – you are stealing from their rightful inheritance, condemning them to a future poorer than they deserve.

(In case you were wondering, ‘Pinker’ is a reference to the psychologist Steven Pinker – to say the least, a very divisive figure. As indeed was Wagner, but that’s another story…).

And here is one of Gove’s leading apologists, the controversialist Toby Young:

I believe that all children can benefit from learning Latin, from seeing the plays of Shakespeare and from studying our island story. To deny them that opportunity on the grounds that those things are “elitist” is inverted snobbery. We’ll never dismantle the English class system if poor children are herded into media studies classes and forced to watch EastEnders while the children of the rich are introduced to the best that’s been thought and said. That’s not social justice, it’s social apartheid.

Making this argument requires the creation of an imaginary enemy, a group that deliberately and mischievously seeks to deny children access to particular forms of culture. Yet Gove and his allies are themselves engaging in a kind of denial, of anything that falls outside their narrow view of ‘the best that’s been thought and said’. I don’t believe for one minute that Toby Young is remotely interested in ‘dismantling the English class system’ (or indeed that he knows anything whatsoever about Media Studies – though I would be intrigued to know where this ‘social apartheid’ is actually practiced). While purporting to be anti-elitist, these arguments also proclaim the need to reassert the authority of established forms of high culture and of disciplinary knowledge. For Gove and his allies, it is the curriculum of upper-class private schools – or perhaps a fantasy version of it – that is held up as the model for the state system.

Gove’s notion of education as a means of enabling ‘poor’ children to ‘transcend the circumstances of their birth’ is a very familiar one in British educational policy. It is routinely invoked by those who seek to retain or reintroduce selective schools; and by those who make much of the (largely tokenistic) efforts of fee-paying schools to become more inclusive. The continuing attempts to bring back selective grammar schools, for example, rest on these kinds of claims, despite clear evidence that a selective system reduces overall social mobility. Yet Conservative politicians are keen to assert that all children can now succeed, regardless of obstacles – and by extension, that inherited privileges no longer matter.

Gove himself seems to have been haunted by the spectre of the ‘scholarship boy’, the innately talented working-class (male) child who wins a free place at a selective, fee-paying school. As I’ve argued in an earlier post, Gove himself doesn’t come from an upper-class background like many of his colleagues, although his personal history doesn’t quite fit the scholarship boy narrative either. Nevertheless, this is a story that romanticises the idea of a kind of intergenerational ‘escape’ from the working class to the upper middle class, albeit for a select minority.

As a scholarship boy myself (I was the first person in my extended family to attend university), I would count myself among a cohort that did achieve upward mobility, at least partly through education. Yet the story of the scholarship boy emphasises individual (and mostly financial) gains, while neglecting the losses of such a social transition: there’s more to say about the emotional dimensions and stresses it entails. Furthermore, this story appears to be fairly specific to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s: it’s questionable whether it really applies to the large numbers of working-class children who have been through higher education in more recent decades (without the benefit of scholarships, of course).

The historian Peter Mandler’s recent book The Crisis of the Meritocracy revises this story in important ways (you can watch his ten-minute summary of some of its key arguments here). Mandler shows how this form of upward social mobility was part of a much more widely distributed rise in affluence in the three decades following the war. This was partly due to the extension of the welfare state, and partly because of the growth of the service sector and the decline in manufacturing industry. As more and more ‘blue collar’ workers became ‘white collar’ workers, they came to expect a certain level of state provision, and of equality of opportunity, for their children. This was manifested in a rising birth rate, and in greater enthusiasm for education itself – despite the fact that, by the late 1970s, it was becoming apparent that education itself made relatively little difference to social mobility.

Although Mandler doesn’t deal with more recent decades in great detail, it’s clear that we are now living through a period of increasing social inequality, and indeed of significant downward social mobility for some. A recent survey for the Social Mobility Commission, for example, found that one fifth of people in the UK were in lower-status jobs than their parents, and that black and ethnic minority groups were particularly affected. The ‘room at the top’ that was once available for a minority is now much more constrained, despite the fact that so many more people are now entering higher education; and incidentally, this seems to be particularly apparent in the creative and cultural industries.

In this context, the Conservatives’ use of the idea of social justice is largely a matter of smoke and mirrors. It is not about equality of opportunity, let alone equality of outcome. It is not about democracy, but about meritocracy. While there’s a good deal of debate about this term, it’s fair to say that meritocracy is a highly individualistic concept. It’s a matter of individuals gaining cultural, political or economic power by virtue of what are seen as their own innate talents and hard work, rather than any inherited wealth or privilege. To mix metaphors, meritocracy is about people rising up the ‘ladder of opportunity’, ‘pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps’ and thereby ‘transcending the circumstances of their birth’ through their own efforts. It is not about greater equality for all, but about the upward mobility of a small ‘talented’ minority – the ‘deserving poor’.

The term meritocracy has a longer history, but it came to prominence with the publication in 1958 of The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young (not the sociologist of education, but ironically the father of Toby). Young’s prescient book is a kind of dystopian ‘novel’, intended not as an endorsement of the idea, but as a satirical attack upon it – and particularly on the way it was embodied in the stratified education system of the time, where children were sorted into different schools at the age of eleven. For Young, meritocracy was little more than a quasi-objective justification for social inequality. He was very dismayed by the way the idea was taken up and legitimised by politicians – not least by Tony Blair, whom he attacked directly in an article just before his death. One wonders what he would have made of the way the idea has been used by more recent policy-makers under both Labour and the Conservatives, especially in the field of education.

Contemporary critics go further. Jo Littler’s book Against Meritocracy (at the time of writing still free to access as a Kindle download) suggests that the idea has become a kind of alibi for neoliberalism and the decline of the welfare state. Meritocracy, she argues, validates competitive individualism, and is part of a broader ‘responsibilization’ that is characteristic of modern societies (not least of media policy, as I’ve argued before). Individuals (or, in the case of education, parents) are blamed for their failure (or their children’s failure) to work hard, to aspire and compete. The idea of meritocracy legitimates inequality, allowing the winners to blame the losers for failing to work hard enough, or to demonstrate sufficient talent in the first place. It co-opts the idea of social equality, but turns us all into individualistic entrepreneurs and self-marketers. This conveniently ignores systematic, institutional inequalities, and forgets about those who (for many reasons) are prevented from rising or climbing of their own accord.

What’s especially useful for media-educated readers of this blog is that Littler explores how the idea circulates, not just among politicians and ideologues, but also in popular media such as reality TV, talent shows and celebrity culture. There’s also a useful piece by Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn that explores how popular representations of schooling (Jamie’s Dream School, anyone?) reflect this wider emphasis on entrepreneurialism and self-reliance. In these representations, inequalities (especially of class) are seen as minor inconveniences that can be overcome by hard work and innate talent. As recent research has shown, these ideas are also very prevalent among senior figures within the creative and cultural industries, where they offer a means of denying continuing structural inequalities to do with class, gender and ethnicity.

In terms of education, the idea of meritocracy has several significant problems. Most obviously, there is the question of how we define ‘merit’, and how we measure it. Like ‘knowledge’ and ‘cultural capital’, merit (or talent, ability, intelligence or character, or any other synonym for the term) is not given, nor is it objective. There are many kinds of merit, which inevitably tend to acquire different kinds of social value. Yet in education the notion of merit is typically based on a singular, narrow view of talent and intelligence, which assumes that such things are somehow inborn or innate.

On top of this, there’s the fact that this is by no means a level playing field. It remains possible for people to buy access to education that will enable their children to pass tests of ‘merit’ (for example in the form of private schooling or tutoring). While fee-paying private schools continue to exist (indeed, as charities!), they will always cream off children who are seen to have the most ‘merit’; and their students will be massively over-represented at elite universities and among the political class. In such a situation, education can never be properly meritocratic, however much politicians may claim that it is.

In purloining the idea of social justice, and in spinning it into the notion of meritocracy, neoconservative thinkers have performed a remarkable sleight of hand. In making it the foundation of a curriculum based on narrow ideas of knowledge and cultural capital, educational policy-makers are compounding the dishonesty. It is surely time their conjuring tricks were more directly challenged.

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Jo Littler (2017) Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility London: Routledge

Peter Mandler (2020) The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education Since the Second World War Oxford: Oxford University Press

Michael Young (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality Harmondsworth: Penguin