Meritocracy is a myth

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Silver Spoon. Image courtesy of pixabay.com

The British education sector has long been one of the most prestigious in the world, with some of our best universities priding themselves on academic success and intelligence. Many of us have been told that if you do well at school, college, and university, then you will do well in life. However, I would argue that this is only partially true, and there is a dark side of our education system. In many cases, privilege triumphs over individual merit. Remember the saying “it’s all about who you know rather than what you know”?

There are a range of factors that have caused this. The most important factor, I think, is the existence of fee-paying schools, but other factors include higher fees for non-EU students than for EU students, and the lack of independence for the state education sector. Indeed, the abolition of the maintenance grant is only going to make matters worse.

Let’s start with the fee paying schools. Because the main entry requirement of those schools is to have someone that can afford the high fees, they automatically favour the wealthy. We are talking about schools that often have better resources and far more independence than state schools, and schools that often dominate the league tables. More importantly, the top universities (including Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, and Edinburgh) have the highest intake of public school students. Clearly, this shows that privilege is a major factor in determining success in the education system. However, Lancaster should be proud of the fact that the proportion of private and state school students is very close to the national average of students currently attending private and state schools.

However, the league tables only indicate levels of social mobility amongst UK students, and this is an inaccurate reflection of how meritocratic the system is overall. This is because of the large number of international students at our universities, and we don’t seem to have data for the types of schools they attended in their home countries. With fees for students from outside of the EU being significantly higher than for UK and EU students, they are far more likely to have come from privileged backgrounds and to have been privately educated. This means that someone from outside of the EU, from a poor background who is also bright enough to attend a British university, is denied the chance to do so simply because they can’t afford it. Therefore, the triumph of privilege over merit in British education has negative consequences not only for people in the UK but also for people all over the world.

Earlier, I hinted that fee-paying schools offered a range of benefits that are otherwise denied to those attending state schools. That just isn’t right, and I argue that state schools should adopt many of these benefits, such as the reduction of state interference, and the ability to generate a private income other than raising school fees (in this case, alongside state funding) to improve facilities. Many of the activities of state schools are seriously restricted by excessive state regulation, meaning that head teachers, teachers, and school governors can be denied the opportunity to decide what is best for their schools based on practical experience which politicians often lack. They are not allowed to make a profit either, which seriously restricts their ability to invest in new facilities and provide their students with extra support.

Essentially, meritocracy in our education system is a myth that very few people in a position of power have ever had the courage to confront, and this applies to socialists and liberals as much as conservatives. The former Conservative education secretary Michael Gove summed up the state of our education system in a speech to independent school heads arguing that “more than almost any other developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress” and declared that “for those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

To solve this, we need to abolish fee-paying schools and bring the entire education system into state ownership at the earliest opportunity to give every child the right to attend any school in the country (private schools would be converted into state schools rather than closed down). I also propose that we reverse the most recent changes to higher education funding, and fees for non-EU students should be reduced to the level that UK and EU students pay. However, the government has to make cutbacks, and the changes I suggested need to be sufficiently funded; let’s incentivise educational institutions, generate a private income, abolish tuition fees, and reduce dependence on state funding.