The place of education in a failed meritocracy

Martin Robinson’s piece posted last week  prompted the following, rambling thoughts:

The argument for meritocracy was lost on the political stage a long time ago (see Owen Jones’ book The Establishment for how that was achieved) so why is education policy still justified with reference to it. Labour is widely considered unelectable because the leader is concerned with issues of equality and social justice rather than wealth creation and prosperity yet the government talks consistently about education as fundamentally concerned with lifting people out of poverty.  For both Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, the mantra that the system is failing the poor and requires reform to promote progress for all has been repeatedly put forward as a justification for a narrow curriculum and an emphasis on testing.

Robinson uses his beautiful prose to illustrate the problems with an education system that is fixated with crudely measurable progress towards qualifications. Children need to buy into the idea that if they work hard in school, the pieces of paper they leave with will ensure a happy life of economic well-being. Whilst there is enough research to link grades and income (Dylan Wiliam provides a clear analysis of the evidence), there are key factors acknowledged in other spheres of life but not education. Most importantly, the extent to which parents (understandably) use their influence to promote the interests of their children above others.

As a teacher I have bought into the idea that what I was doing was about changing life opportunities. I have always wanted children to lift their eyes to the horizon rather than be distracted by the petty squabbles of the playground. That children do not link the present moment to a distant future is perfectly understandable (how many adults plan for ten years time?) but what if their experiences help them to see learning today and future opportunity as unconnected.  For most children I have taught, the networks within their families and communities take them in other directions.  All parents use their influence as best they can to support their children but for those in poverty, giving their children a leg up into high paid work is not possible. 

The professions and some well paid skilled manual jobs have always been passed down through families. Public policy that at different moments sought to promote equality has never been able to level the playing field in terms of opportunity because of the role of parents. I have no answer to that but I know that telling children that progress in qualifications will lead automatically to the promised land is not recognising the reality of life.  The introduction of the comprehensive school system was intended to ensure all children benefited from a good education. By and large it succeeded but what it did not do was equalise opportunity in society. Parents subverted the ideal through an increasingly segregated housing market and as a result society became less equal rather than more. Poverty isn’t an issue as long as everyone is poor.  Education policy since the 1950s has contributed inadvertently to a society that has become materially enriched but less equal, ghettoised and, if polls are to be believed, unhappy. Education has been driven by the need to increase consumer spending above all other considerations. As teachers we want to buy into the belief that better grades leads directly to more opportunity because it places us not as Jack Marwood’s “icing on the cake” but at the heart of social change. 

The teaching profession is not meritocratic. Now that schools are driving teaching training, getting on to a PGCE course relies more than ever on gaining experience in schools. Headteachers understandably are risk averse and therefore will take the person they have known as a volunteer above the stranger. Unfortunately this shuts the door on applicants without the connections to gain experience in the first place.  Access to voluntary positions is often restricted to past pupils and friends/relatives of staff. There are some honourable exceptions where teaching schools alliances offer experience to all comers but there are many heads who have already chosen their student and see the legal requirement to have open and transparent recruitment as a nonsensical restriction that runs counter to the spirit of a school driven system.

For those of us in the profession, we need to reignite a debate around the purpose of our work. Part of that should be an honest discussion about the impact we have and could have in the future. Robinson’s final paragraph includes asks teachers to support children “in forever becoming” and doing “something now for its own sake, and not in the mistaken belief that it will make them a better person, get them a better job or help them progress towards a far off, dull and distinctly obtainable, goal.” 


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