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The Perils and Penalties of Meritocracy: Sanctioning Inequalities and Legitimating Prejudice



This article deploys insights from Michael Young’s 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy to challenge the dominant ideology of meritocracy in contemporary British society. It draws on ethnographic research in schools over a twenty‐five year period to illustrate the damage the illusion of meritocracy inflicts on children and young people, but particularly those from working class backgrounds. It argues that the consequences of the pretence of meritocracy are to be found in everyday practices of testing, hyper‐competition and setting, and beyond the classroom in the designation of predominantly working class schools as ‘rubbish schools for rubbish learners’. It concludes that, beyond the negative consequences for working class learners, there are wider consequences for British society, exacerbating social divisions and encouraging the growth of distrust, prejudice, envy, resentment, and contempt between different social groups.
The Perils and Penalties of Meritocracy:
Sanctioning Inequalities and Legitimating
This article deploys insights from Michael Youngs 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy to
challenge the dominant ideology of meritocracy in contemporary British society. It draws on
ethnographic research in schools over a twenty-ve year period to illustrate the damage the
illusion of meritocracy inicts on children and young people, but particularly those from
working class backgrounds. It argues that the consequences of the pretence of meritocracy
are to be found in everyday practices of testing, hyper-competition and setting, and beyond
the classroom in the designation of predominantly working class schools as rubbish schools
for rubbish learners. It concludes that, beyond the negative consequences for working class
learners, there are wider consequences for British society, exacerbating social divisions and
encouraging the growth of distrust, prejudice, envy, resentment, and contempt between dif-
ferent social groups.
Keywords: meritocracy, neoliberalism, social mobility, social class, educational inequalities
... growing inequality goes together with a
strengthening of citizensmeritocratic
WHEN MICHAEL YOUNG coined the term meritoc-
racy in his 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritoc-
racy, he introduced into popular
understanding an ideal long cherished in Bri-
tish society: may the best person win.
despite Youngs pessimistic account of the
dangers of meritocracy, it has become widely
accepted as an ideal in liberal democratic
societies. A meritocratic system is a competi-
tion in which there are clear winners and
losers, but in which the resulting inequalities
are justied on the basis that participants
have an equal opportunity to prove them-
selves. The very notion of merit undercuts
any idea of radical change as an alternative
to neoliberal capitalism, instead generating
policy options that work within existing
structures rather than challenging them. In
The essence of neoliberalism, Pierre Bour-
dieu describes neoliberalism as a programme
for destroying collective structures which
may impede the pure market logic.
racy has become a key weapon in neoliberal-
isms armoury, the dominant ideology
justifying neoliberalisms central tenet of the
winner takes all.
The British, in particular, subscribe to the
fantasy of upper and middle class privilege
as a meritocratic achievement rather than an
inherited asset. This is despite the UK having
one of the lowest levels of social mobility in
the developed world. As a consequence,
privilege is represented as advantage that
the privileged have earned through hard
work and ability rather than social, cultural
and economic benets they amass simply by
being born into already privileged families.
The mendacity of such a representation is
evident in statistics that show children at pri-
vate schools have 300 per cent more spent
on their education than children in state
schools. Yet, as research by Declan Gaffney
and Ben Baumberg demonstrates, Britain
combines high levels of public belief in meri-
tocracy with very low levels of social mobil-
They found the British were more likely
to think they lived in a meritocratic society
The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 2, AprilJune 2020
©2020 Political Quarterly Publishing Co (PQPC) 405
than those in many comparable countries
such as France, Spain and Germany, even
though these countries were more socially
mobile in practice.
The fantasy in the UK is that anyone with
enough determination, hard work and talent
can be whatever they want to be, and the pri-
mary vehicle for such transformations is the
educational system. In reality, the educational
system in the UK is primarily reproductive,
reinforcing the status quo and largely keeping
people in the economic, social, and cultural
positions into which they were born. In the
very unequal society the UK has become, mer-
itocracy is the imsy sticking plaster patching
up a rotten public realm, a civil society that
is no longer civil or particularly social. Citi-
zens, particularly in the UK, are convinced
that poverty and wealth are the outcomes of a
fair meritocratic process. They are inured to
growing levels of inequality because they
increasingly live in class and racially segre-
gated communities.
The illusion exposed in The Rise of Meritoc-
racy is that education is supposed to be merito-
cratic, despite it remaining a powerful
mechanism of legitimation of social closure
and exclusion. Now every child has to reach
the skyor aim for the stars. It is no longer
acceptable to want to work in a shop, be a
building labourer or a care worker. These are
jobs you take on the way to fullling your
dreams. As Stefan Collini presciently pointed
out, Britain is becoming the aspiration nation.
But aspirations need infrastructure in order to
be realised if you lack the power, wealth, and
resources of the middle and upper classes.
And increasingly, that infrastructure is not
there. But as Collini goes on to say, our aspira-
tional society is about giving privileged chil-
dren a better chance of having educational
success than other peoples children. They also
want to be seen to be being fair, and the main
subterfuge for doing this is to collude in the
myth that our educational system is merito-
cratic when it is patently entrenching wealth
and advantage. We should not be looking to
the educational system to deliver a fairer soci-
ety with equal opportunities for all to succeed.
Schools alone cannot solve the problems of
poverty and equal opportunities, nor should
they be expected to.
So, how does this slippery trope of meri-
tocracy position those few of us who are
socially mobile from the working classes into
professional jobs? The qualities and capabili-
ties of the socially mobile are always framed
within the discourse of self-efcacy, aspira-
tion and choice. We are the agentic few
among a larger mass of working class people
who are perceived to be passive, unintelli-
gent and unmotivated. We are, according to
the dominant dogma, the brightest and the
bestof the working class; those whose abil-
ity and effort will shine through. But, having
lived a rags to richestrajectory from free
school meal child growing up on a sink
council estate to Cambridge professor, I
know what a callous and complacent ction
this is. Meritocracy, and the preoccupation
with social mobility that it encourages, has
been the undoing of the working classes in
more ways than one. It positions the still
working classes as a residuum, too stupid,
too idle to make the requisite move towards
becoming a better, brighter person. They
have become the outcasts in the UK aspira-
tion dream story, and as such, can be disre-
garded and mistreated by the more powerful
in society. The pernicious symbolic violence
of social mobility is that the working classes
are only classied as of value if they adopt
middle class dispositions of neoliberal com-
petitive individualism.
But for the few who do succeed education-
ally, social mobility is a lonely individualised
process; inevitably, you can only go up the
ladder alone. As such, it works against soli-
darity, depleting the working classes of
much needed human resources, and fre-
quently estranging socially mobile individu-
als from the communities they have left,
without providing them with another to
belong to. They often experience an enduring
sense of never tting in, while, in this divi-
sive meritocratic race to the top that educa-
tion has become, the still working classes
become the pathologised other. The next
section explores the penalties and perils of
meritocracy for those positioned as losers in
the education system.
The consequences of meritocratic
ideology for the working classes
As Jo Littler asserts, meritocracy connects
powerfully to competitiveness in general
and within education in particular.
The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 2 ©2020 Political Quarterly Publishing Co (PQPC)
ideology of meritocracy has profound conse-
quences for the way in which the losers in
the hyper-competitive game that education
has become, both view themselves and deal
with their inferior status. In The Rise of the
Meritocracy, Michael Young wrote of the
educational losers: They are tested again
and again ... If they have been labelled
duncerepeatedly they cannot any longer
pretend; their image of themselves is more
nearly a true, unattering reection.
But tests are neither objective nor accurate
and contribute to the very inequality they are
purporting to measure. I am going to draw
on ethnographic research in schools over a
twenty-ve year period to illustrate the dam-
age such unattering reections inict on
working class learners. This is a nine year-
old, white, working class girl, Tracey:
I think even now, at night times I think
about it and I think Im going to get them
... When Im in bed, because Ive got stars
on my ceiling, Im hoping and I look up and
I go, I know Im gonna get there. And my
mum goes, Whos talking in there?And I
goes, Nothing mum. I think about a three.
I dont think Ill get a ve. Im hoping to
get a ve. When I look at the stars I hope Ill
get a ve.
For working class children, test results
were conated with far-reaching conse-
quences in which good SATs results were
linked to positive life prospects and poor
results meant future failures and hardships.
For many of these children, test results were
not simply about how well they were able
to perform, but went to the very heart of
who they were, and what they could
In The Rise of the Meritocracy, Youngs pro-
tagonist writes that once ability can be tested
and certied in children as young as three,
there remains no reason to educate the
bright with those who will drag down their
performance. In twenty-rst century Britain,
we have already moved a long way towards
segregated state schooling, despite our so-
called comprehensive system. In the follow-
ing two quotes we can see the negative
repercussions for working class learner iden-
tities of being designated a rubbishlearner
only ttogotorubbishschools:
And Ive been hearing that if you dont get
into any of the good schools they send you
to one of the rubbish schools. So, I then
thought that was really awful because all the
kids there will be bad and no good at learn-
ing. (George, white, English, working class)
Deerpark is still going to be rubbish when
its changed ... because there are still the
same students and the students are crap.
(Teyk, Turkish, working class)
But George ends up at Chiltern, while Tey-
k goes to Deerpark, and both have to man-
age the balance between going to schools seen
to be rubbish with crap studentsand trying
to be successful learners. However, the pro-
cesses of segregation that the ideology of mer-
itocracy endorses and legitimates are having a
wider effect beyond their negative impact on
individual children. They are changing and
limiting the ways in which the different social
classes relate to each otherincreasing social
distance, mistrust and ignorance of those who
are different to oneselfand in relation to the
working classes, sanctioning prejudice and
denigration towards them from more privi-
leged social groups. We can see further harm-
ful consequences in what white, middle class
children say about predominantly working
class schools and the children who attend
Well, I wouldnt say this in front of other
people, I think Chiltern is good for the not
so intelligent people, but for the intelligent
people its not good enough. (Alex, white,
middle class)
As English schools have become more and
more preoccupied with assessment, measure-
ment and testing in order to separate out
meritocracys winners from the losers, a cul-
ture of hyper-competition has intensied
within schools, and not only between them.
Now, as Young feared, children as young as
two and three are being tested and ranked
on the basis of their perceived ability. The
consequences are particularly vivid in the
accounts of primary school-aged children
talking about the ability sets to which they
have been allocated. This is a six year-old in
a London primary school:
They [the lions] think they are better than us.
They think they are good at every single
©2020 Political Quarterly Publishing Co (PQPC) The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 2
thing and the second group, Tigers, there are
some people that think they are good and
more important than us. And one of the boys
in giraffes, he was horrible to me and he said
get lost slow tortoise, but my group are
monkeys and we are only second to bottom.
As well as creating hierarchies of worth
among children, dividing them into winners
and losers on the basis of perceived ability,
meritocratic practices such as setting also
lead to the children in the lower sets inter-
nalising a sense that they have little or no
educational value. The quotes that follow are
from bottom set students in an English com-
prehensive school:
Satvinder: Right now, because Im in the bot-
tom set for everything I dont like it, because
Im only doing the foundation paper. I could
have gone to a better higher place, and then
I could have done everything I was hoping
to but now there is no hope.
Atik: I think I failed proper badly in the tests
and thats why Im in a proper bad set now
... So Ive just become rubbish.
The demoralisation of bottom set children
that comes through being looked down on
and devalued was evident in the responses
of four bottom set working class boys when
I asked them what they enjoyed learning:
Diane: If you had a choice what would you
choose to learn?
Jason: Nothing.
George: Nothing.
Andy: No idea.
Paul: Denitely nothing!
Twenty years ago, I wrote that the myth
of meritocracy normalises inequalities, con-
verting them into individual rather than col-
lective responsibilities.
However, despite
the costs to their own self-worth and learner
identities, over the last decade working class
children and young people are even more
likely to identify as good neoliberal subjects,
buying heavily into the process of individu-
alisation and free choice. Neoliberal inu-
ences are particularly evident in the young
peoples espousal of aspirational discourses
of having it all’—so Hasim dreams of own-
ing houses across the globe and having a
eet of cars, including an Aston Martin;
Shirin aims to be a leading archaeologist;
Cerise wants to be rich and marry a foot-
baller; while Jide dreams of living next door
to Wayne Rooney in a mansion with a
games room for his children and cars like
Ferraris. Neoliberal attitudes also permeate
their attitudes to their learning and, in par-
ticular, their powerful sense of individual
responsibility for learning (and in a majority
of cases their failure to achieve educational
success). Students told me: its down to the
individual how well you do at school;you
have to make yourself stand out compared
to all the other people doing the same
exams;if you want to do well you just
have to work really hard. You cant blame
the school or your teachers, and more dis-
turbingly, You have to be the very best of
the best. These working class young people
are heavily invested in notions of the auton-
omous, self-reliant individual, responsible for
any future outcomes.
Throughout these quotes, we see symbolic
violence being channelled through merito-
cratic beliefs that sanctify the devaluation of
the dominated and reinforce the privilege of
the dominant. The misrecognition of educa-
tional advantage that meritocracy authorises
allows the economic, social, and cultural cap-
itals that dene educational success to be
read as inherent ability, while the lack of
those capitals is misread as an inherent
lack. For Bourdieu, the very denition of
symbolic violence is the ability of the domi-
nant to impose their own perception of
themselves on others. I would argue that it
also includes the ability to impose their view
of the dominated on others, including the
dominated themselves.
Schooling has become a eld of everyday
micro acts of symbolic violence against
working class children. Reecting on meri-
tocracy in 2006, Michael Young lamented
that the British education system, increas-
ingly harnessed to the economy, was taking
the heart out of millions of children as a con-
The collective belief in a narrow
conception of merit as coterminous with abil-
ity plus effort has had negative repercussions
for children like Tracey, Satvinder, Atik and
The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 2 ©2020 Political Quarterly Publishing Co (PQPC)
Jason, undermining their feelings of self-
worth and damaging their sense of them-
selves as positive learners. The consequence
of Britains huge symbolic investment in a
meritocratic educational system is the reduc-
tion of the vast majority of the working
classes to collateral damage in the race for
middle and upper class educational success.
Academy schools: the epitome of
the meritocratic institution
One of the most chilling educational research
experiences I have had was on a cold winters
morning in 2016 when I visited an academy
in the South East of England. When the tea-
cher and I walked into the year eight class-
room, all the children got to their feet, stood
rigidly to attention, and sts clenched, raised
their arms and chanted the mantra I aspire,
they aspire, we all aspire. As I have written
elsewhere, this is the mindless mantra
approach to inequalities.
These young peo-
ple are being indoctrinated into the belief that
they can transform their own lives if they are
self-disciplined enough, obey all the rules,
and strive long hours every day. What I also
found chilling when I interviewed groups of
students was their recognition and acceptance
that the discipline and control exercised over
them in school was good preparation for a
future labour market that they readily
acknowledged would be long hours of hard
work, and a culture of professional obedience,
regulation, and surveillance.
Although not all academies are attempting
to produce neoliberal foot soldiers, a signi-
cant number appear to be. A growing body
of research maps out the myth of meritoc-
racyunderpinning the philosophy of many
academy schools. Christy Kulz writes of the
daily diet of conformity, compliance, and
deference to authority that students in the
London academy she calls Dreamelds
were being fed, in which education becomes
She writes of a working class
father who told her he had said to one of
the teachers: it is important to teach kids to
think, only to be met with the response: if
you wanted them to think, youve sent them
to the wrong school.
In an ethnography of an academy school
in the north of England, Kirsty Morrin writes
of how the academy chain sponsors
entrepreneurial education, not only in the
sense of good business acumen, but as some-
thing to learn, to do and be, arguing that
entrepreneurship here embodies and is
embedded in problematic policies to raise
aspirationsand promote social mobil-
She concludes that within the pre-
dominantly working class academy school
she was studying, entrepreneurship, aspira-
tions and social mobility are brought
together to represent core elements of meri-
tocracy, further entrenching individualism,
competition, narrow notions of talents, and
the need for extra-hard work.
When we consider the mission statements
of many academies, the focus is on excel-
lence, elitism and the creation of a true mer-
itocracy. So, the stated values of the
Cambridge Meridian Academies Trust are:
expecting excellence of every person, every
day; rejecting outright any sense of compla-
cency; continually striving for the creation of
a true meritocracy; and promoting and cele-
brating elite performance inside school and
in the wider world. Similarly, the Star Aca-
demies Trust aims to transform the educa-
tional achievement of the nations young
people; elevate the life chances of young
people in areas of social and economic depri-
vation to help them succeed at the highest
levels of education, employment and the
professions; offer parents the chance to send
their children to an inspirational school;
ensure ambition and high aspirations are
rewarded; and make a demonstrable impact
on social mobility and equality.
The powerful aspirational theme that per-
meates the values and culture of many mul-
ti-academy trusts is most apparent in some
of the names those institutions choose to
promote themselves and their ethos. So we
have the Aspire Academy Trust, the Aspira-
tions Academy Trust, The Inspiration Trust,
and the Flying High Academy Trust. One of
the latter trusts academy schools publicises
its key value as aspiration, with a website
that states how we think it is important for
children to grow and develop in a world
that teaches them to never give up and
embrace challenges with a proactive mind-
set. It also urges children to shake it off
and step up,todream big, while reporting
that throughout the school, our corridors
display inspirational messages to immerse
©2020 Political Quarterly Publishing Co (PQPC) The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 2
every pupil, staff member and visitor in an
aspirational environment. We believe that
anyone who walks through our doors can
clearly see that we reach for the stars. But
reaching for the stars is not the same as
embodying them. Despite the regular exhor-
tations to strive for academic excellence, a
majority of working class young people in
academies still end up as educational losers,
with a strong sense that they only have
themselves to blame.
Repercussions for the
educationally successful: when
even stars are failing
However, any sort of success has its losses,
even for the so-called winners, but that is
rarely recognised. For many brightmiddle
and upper class students, reaching the stars
is not necessarily about fullment and satis-
faction. Now, children I interview, even
those as young as ve and six, tell me that it
is not good enough to do wellyou have to
be the best. In this corrosive competitive
culture, being a star is no longer sufcient.
In 2018 I interviewed a group of year one
students in a white, middle class, state pri-
mary school. Their school sweatshirts were
festooned with a range of stickers proclaim-
ing them to be a good helper,great at lis-
tening,brilliant at making an effort,
marvellous at mathsand super at spel-
ling. There was also a range of star stickers.
When I asked one little girl what her star
meant, she told me her type of star was a bit
of a rubbish star, but there were shining
stars which were better and if she did really
well, she might be promoted to one of these.
Another girl interjected to elaborate on the
star ranking system. There were ordinary
stars, then shining stars, and above them
shooting and super stars. These girls are the
winners in our educational system, but even
some of them are not winning well enough.
In The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young pre-
sents the views of the meritocrats who mock
a society in which status is ascribed by birth,
deriding a lineage in which sons followed
faithfully in the footsteps of fathers, and
fathers as faithfully behind grandfathers.
Yet such is the shamelessness of the pretence
of meritocracy in contemporary Britain that
the only change to such a line of descent
today is that we have daughters as well as
sons following in their fathersfootsteps. In
the 2020s, only 4 per cent of doctors, 6 per
cent of barristers and 11 per cent of journal-
ists are drawn from working class back-
grounds. Individuals with parents who are
doctors are 24 times more likely to be doc-
tors than those whose parents did any other
type of work, while people with parents
who are lawyers are 17 times more likely to
go into law.
But although these sons and
daughters are held up as role models for the
working classes to emulate, they have been
socially immobile rather than mobile. The
upper and middle classes want their children
to nd the same job as themselves, or if not
the same job, then a slightly better job.
Rather than being engaged in meritocratic
processes, they are the beneciaries of nepo-
tism. But this nepotism and the reproduction
of privilege must be masked and presented
as merit.
In contemporary Britain, the heaviest bur-
dens and hard work of meritocracy are all to
be borne by the upwardly mobile working
classes, while middle and upper class trajecto-
ries are characterised by stasis and continuity,
with very little mobility involved. The obses-
sion with meritocracy is a symptom of the
abandonment of the goals of progressive
politics, whereby the structural conditions
of a deep social, political, and economic crisis
have been mis-dened as a problem of
individual behaviours. The costs and cruelties
of this ideological displacement are dis-
turbingly evident in the young working class
studentsaccounts of always having to do bet-
ter, to be better, and in the systems judgment
thatin the vast majority of casestheir
efforts and striving are not good enough.
There has been a growing pretence from
1944 onwards that the UK educational sys-
tem is a meritocracy, but the rhetoric has
become shriller and more intense since the
1970s, as inequalities in British society have
increased and social mobility has fallen. Our
elite appears to have convinced a majority of
British citizens that they live in a meritoc-
racy simply by espousing meritocratic rheto-
ric, rather than enacting any meritocratic
The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 2 ©2020 Political Quarterly Publishing Co (PQPC)
practices. They promote meritocracy while
protecting their privilege. Meritocracy is fal-
lacious on a number of different levels: it
elides effort and ability with privilege, but it
also elides educational success with occupa-
tional outcomes. Yet, twenty-rst century
Britain is not producing enough graduate
jobs for all the graduates its universities are
churning out. Rather, the real growth has
been in traditional low skilled, often low
paid jobs. In twenty-rst century Britain,
there is more room at the bottom rather than
at the top. Youngs dystopian meritocracy
has not come to pass, but we have some-
thing even worse: the pretence of a meritoc-
racy. Far from effort and talent receiving its
just rewards, class distinctions are as stark as
ever, shaping educational outcomes and
career trajectories. Rather, we have a veneer
of meritocracy which continues to protect
and preserve the hereditary principle. The
hereditary principle was initially abolished
in Youngsctitious meritocracy, but re-
emerged to reinforce a meritocratic regime.
But, what contemporary society does share
with Youngs dystopia is that, increasingly,
there is no sympathy for the educational
losers, who are assumed to deserve their
fate. We see the consequences in the cruelty
of everyday classroom practices of testing
and settingwhich result in the routine
labelling of the working classes as no good
at learningand beyond the classroom in
the designation of predominantly working
class schools as rubbish schools for rubbish
children. Tests create an illusion of objectiv-
ity, enabling professional educators to
appear scienticwhilst serving the need of
the system for a myth capable of convincing
the lower classes that their station in life is
part of the natural order of things. In 2001
Young was able to assert that his imaginary
authors claim that it is no longer necessary
to debase standards by attempting to extend
a higher civilisation to the children of the
lower classesat least remained unfullled.
It is disputable that this is still the case.
Working class children routinely experience
a narrower curriculum, more teaching to the
test, are afforded fewer resources, less expe-
rienced teachers, and have more temporary
teachers than their more afuent peers.
The merit-based ideology infusing under-
standings of educational success and failure
has very explicit negative consequences for
the individual working class children cited
in this paper; but it also has clear negative
consequences for wider British society, exac-
erbating social divisions and encouraging the
growth of distrust, prejudice, envy, resent-
ment and contempt between different social
groups. These divisions, particularly those of
class and race, were dramatically brought to
light in the recent Brexit vote. Britains pre-
tence of being meritocratic has had a dire
impact on the most vulnerable groups in
society: the poor, ethnic minorities, and the
working classes, allowing levels of denigra-
tion and disrespect that would be viewed as
socially unacceptable in many other rich
nations. Recent research shows that negative
attitudes to those with few educational qual-
ications have become one of the last bas-
tions of acceptableprejudiceto the extent
that it may not be seen by many as prejudice
at alland that these views are shared in
important respects by the target group itself.
Educations losers feel that they dont
deserve the same level of respect and recog-
nition accorded to those who are highly edu-
cated. This is the toxic workings of
meritocracy, which positions educational fail-
ure as a failing of the individual rather than
the responsibility of wider society and, in
particular, those with power. Thus, meritoc-
racys beneciariespredominantly the
already successful and privilegedfeel justi-
ed in looking down, disliking and express-
ing contempt for those who have not been
given the opportunity to succeed. Brexit,
however, provided a unique opportunity for
meritocracysleft behindto express their
anger and antipathy. In post-Brexit Britain
we will need, more than ever, to develop a
society in which all citizens have an equal
opportunity to develop their own special
capacities for leading a rich life. A fair soci-
ety would be founded on plural values, see-
ing worth far beyond the narrow conception
of merit as ability plus effort.
In Youngs book, a more expansive under-
standing of both fairness and merit is to be
found in the Chelsea Manifesto written by
an alliance of feminists and populists in
opposition to the ruling Meritocrats. This
manifesto represented a much broader con-
ception of education and its purpose than
the narrow academic remit we attribute to
©2020 Political Quarterly Publishing Co (PQPC) The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 2
education today. Instead of an educational
system tied to the so-calledneeds of the
economy, schools would focus on encourag-
ing all human talents, creative, practical, affec-
tive and vocational, as well as academic. They
would be caring as well as learning institu-
tions. Young concludes, schools would not
segregate the like, but mingle the unlike; by
promoting diversity within unity, they would
teach respect for the innite human differ-
ences. Schools would not regard children as
shaped once and for all by nature, but as a
combination of potentials which can be culti-
vated by nurture. As Young demonstrates, an
inclusive society would need a much more
inclusive conception of merit than the one cur-
rently subscribed toone that encompasses
practical as well as academic skills, but also
creativity, caring, compassion and collegiality.
In an austerity scared Britain, riven apart by
social inequalities and the aftermath of the
Brexit vote, given a choice between imple-
menting the Chelsea Manifesto or continuing
with yet more of the same old divisive merito-
cratic policies, I know which choice I would
1 J. Mijs, The paradox of inequality: income
inequality and belief in meritocracy go hand in
hand,Socio-Economic Review, vol. 39, 2019, pp.
2 M. Young, The Rise of Meritocracy, Har-
mondsworth, Pelican, 1958.
3 P. Bourdieu, The essence of neoliberalism,
Le Monde diplomatique, December 1998;
(accessed 23 February 2020).
4 D. Gaffney and B. Baumberg, Perceptions of
social mobility in Britain are characterised by a
strange paradox, LSE Politics & Policy blog,
12 May 2014;
that-money-buys-success/ (accessed 23 February
5 S. Collini, Blahspeak,London Review of Books,
vol. 32, no. 7, 78 April 2010, pp. 2934;
stefan-collini/blahspeak (accessed 23 February
6 J. Littler, Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power, and
Myths of Mobility, London, Routledge, 2018.
7 Young, The Rise of Meritocracy, p. 97.
8 D. Reay, Class Work: MothersInvolvement in
Their Childrens Primary Schooling, London,
Routledge, 1998.
9 M. Young, Looking back on meritocracy(in-
terview with Geoff Dench), The Political Quar-
terly, vol. 77, no. 1, 2006, pp 7377.
10 D. Reay, Miseducation, Bristol, Policy Press,
11 C. Kulz, Factories for Learning: Making Race and
Class in a Secondary Academy, Manchester,
Manchester University Press, 2017.
12 K. Morrin, Tensions in teaching character:
how the entrepreneurial characteris repro-
duced, refused, and negotiated in an English
academy school,Sociological Research Online,
vol. 23, no. 2, 2018, pp. 459476.
13 S. Friedman and D. Laurison, The Class Ceiling:
Why it Pays to be Privileged, Bristol, Policy
Press, 2019.
The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 2 ©2020 Political Quarterly Publishing Co (PQPC)
... The new, postwestphalian promise, however, had a different emphasis: while it also offers upward social mobility through successful schooling, this upward social mobility is now only offered to those who live by its values and prove their worth by attaining highly against a narrow range of economically-related criteria. In this new era, only a few children from less advantaged backgrounds will be worthy of the top prizes, which are otherwise held by candidates from more privileged families (Reay, 2020). 'Worth' is therein validated through supra-nationallymanaged accountability systems dominated, for example, by IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organisation, Google and Microsoft (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2018). ...
... This postwestphalian promise, involves the supranationally-managed processes of 'sorting the capable-and-competitive wheat from the incapableand-non-competitive chaff' (Fraser, 2008, p. 128) and thereby constructs different life courses for each. By deploying power in response to people proving themselves through results -rather than deploying state micromanagement of methods -supranational bodies perpetuate the fiction of enhancing equality while actually sustaining inequality (Reay, 2020). ...
... However, Fraser points out the 'plain repression' for those deemed 'incapable-and-non-competitive-chaff', who exist within the 'marginal sector of excluded low achievers' (2018, p. 169), which thereby constitutes them as 'inferior, excluded, wholly other or simply invisible, hence as less than full partners in social interaction ' (2018, p. 24). And yet, dominant socio-political discourses continue to emphasise the power of schooling to allow all children to compete equitably with their more wealthy and more socially privileged peers (Reay, 2020). Meritocracy is the label given to the idea that hard work and talent are the drivers of success, rather than heritage, social networks or wealth. ...
Full-text available
This paper is significant in its exploration of the experiences of children designated as ‘lower-attaining’ in British primary schooling. It is underpinned by Nancy Fraser’s conceptualisation of a global shift from government via nation-state welfare structures to governance through supra-national financialised neoliberalism. Within this context, we take the innovative path of investigating how ‘lower-attaining’ children explain perseverance with hard work at school within neoliberalism’s ‘cruel and cynical fiction’ of social mobility. Our extended interviews with 23 ‘lower-attaining’ children over two years provide findings which indicate – with a startling vividness – that these particular children experienced loneliness at school and blamed themselves for being inadequate and inferior. Fear appeared to be an essential component of their schooling system and sometimes elicited from them anger as well as humiliation. In particular, these children feared being assessed and sorted according to attainment. We propose that these factors often led the ‘lower-attaining’ children to experience schooling as at least uncomfortable. And yet they came to accept as fact the fiction that they were inadequate; and to perceive that perseverance in conforming to schooling’s rules was their only chance of not slipping out of the race altogether.
... Economic, social, cultural, emotional and digital divides that lockdown revealed in their crudest forms. As recent research in this area stresses (Bayrakdar & Guveli, 2020;Bonal & González, 2020;Drane et al., 2020;Cullinane & Montacute, 2020;Hamilton et al., 2020;Reay, 2020b), the global pandemic has amplified the inequality of educational conditions (Lynch & Baker, 2005) that both families and schools face in ensuring students' learning, increasing the attainment gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. ...
... Recent research highlights the psychological distresses linked to the pandemic and identifies the harmful emotional consequences of school closure for the most vulnerable social groups (Drane et al., 2020). Bol (2020) and Cullinane and Montacute (2020) found that families with low cultural capital feel less confident supporting their children's learning during the lockdown and, consequently, that they experienced intense psychological pressures of anxiety and depression related to the requirements of home schooling (Reay, 2020b). ...
... As indicated by Jacovkis and Tarabini (2020), p. 40% of schools with middleclass students prioritised learning as their main goal during distance schooling, whilst this percentage fell to 25% in schools with working-class students. The lockdown therefore further accelerated the social-worker role carried out by teachers in the most disadvantaged schools (Reay, 2020b). ...
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The health emergency generated by COVID-19 and the massive closure of schools has given rise to an unprecedented situation for education systems worldwide. This situation has raised fundamental questions about the role of the school in contemporary societies and whether it still fulfils a particular function as a social institution. This article forwards a theoretical discussion on these issues from a critical sociological approach and, especially, from the perspective of social justice. It argues that the two main functions of schools, namely, socialisation and selection, cannot be fully achieved by distance schooling. Moreover, it contends that the lockdown of schools reinforced the crisis of meaning within the school system by hindering its ability to ensure learning for all students. Overall, the article presents a reflection on the meaning of the school institution in the 21st century, representing a key contribution to contemporary debates on the sociology of education.
... Selfresponsibilisation (Peters, 2017), the shifting of responsibility from the state to the individual student, has taken the place of any attempts by our political elite to redress the very unequal distribution of capitals -economic, cultural and social between different social classes. The neo-liberal meritocratic sentiments underpinning the academies movement have left the blame for educational underachievement with neoliberalism's victims rather than its architects (Reay, 2020). The contemporary English economy is one where insecure contracts, low pay and anti-social hours are endemic. ...
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The publication of Bourdieu and Passeron’s Reproduction had a mixed response. On the one hand the work was criticised for its determinism and pessimistic prognosis of the possibilities of educational change and, on the other hand, praised for its complex analysis of the relationship between education and class inequalities, and the workings of class domination through the educational system. This paper explores the reception Reproduction, and its companion text The Inheritors received before examining the contribution they have made, and continue to make, to understandings of social class inequalities in education. It argues that the work has continuing significance in contemporary England just as it had in 1960s France. As well as examining the relevance of Reproduction for the twenty-first century, it also focuses on the potential of Bourdieu and Passeron’s analysis for enabling animated and agentic conceptualisations of educational and social reproduction by drawing on recent case-study data from English schools. However, it also argues that the lack of sufficient questioning of the dominant educational code, as well as the absence of any moral dimensions of class culture make their study a work in progress which needed the insights of Bourdieu’s later work to bring its analysis to fruition.
... It will be in relation to the other 22 life-histories in our study that we can make claims about social justice more generally. Currently, however, our data highlight how a neo-liberal agenda of acquiring and proving personal worth through high attainment at school can have isolating influences on those for whom this is difficult (Owens & de St Croix, 2020;Reay, 2020). Through persistence in our innovative approach to interviewing across 4 years, we seem to have provided spaces for our participants to construct their own knowledge about experiences of misrecognition and misrepresentation within the system, providing an alternative version of what schooling entails. ...
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This article explores the life-history research approach, outlining its key aims and traditions. It suggests that what is often missing from life-history research is the inclusion of young children as life-history participants. This paper considers some innovative means for constructing children's life-histories across 5 years of their primary schooling in Britain. These include interviews based on activities, games, role-play, pictures and filming, and photography. The article concludes by narrating a short life-history of one child who is a participant in our life-history study of 23 ‘lower-attaining’ children. To close, I consider the critical role of life-history research in highlighting social injustice.
... Through the apparently objective assessment of individual merit, the determining influence of pre-existing social inequalities on the educational outcomes of individuals is obscured by being rendered legitimate (Brown et al., 2016); as Bourdieu puts it: 'a social gift [is] treated as a natural one' (Bourdieu, 1974: 32). This naturalisation of educational outcomes, if it occurs, not only places working class students towards the bottom of the attainment distribution, but also inculcates in them the sense that they are wholly individually responsible for their success or failure (Reay, 2020). ...
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The higher education regulator for England has set challenging new widening access targets requiring universities to rethink how merit is judged in admissions. Universities are being encouraged to move away from the traditional meritocratic equality of opportunity model of fair access, which holds that university places should go to the most highly qualified candidates irrespective of social background, in accordance with the principles of procedural fairness. Instead, they are being asked to move towards what we term the meritocratic equity of opportunity model, which holds that prospective students’ qualifications should be judged in light of the socioeconomic circumstances in which these were obtained to enhance distributive fairness, a practice known in the UK as contextualised admissions. In this paper, we critically discuss the theoretical underpinnings of these two competing perspectives on fair access and review the existing empirical evidence base, drawing together for the first time insights from our ESRC and Nuffield Foundation funded studies of fair access to highly academically selective universities in England. We argue that reconceptualising fair access in terms of distributive fairness rather than procedural fairness offers a more socially just set of principles on which to allocate valuable but scarce places at the most academically selective universities in England, unless or until such time as the vertical stratification of higher education institutions is reduced or eliminated entirely.
... Í vestraenum samfélögum, t.d. í Bretlandi, hefur bil á milli stétta verið að aukast sem þýðir að erfiðara er fyrir einstaklinga að faera sig upp um stétt (Reay, 2020). ...
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Markmið þessarar rannsóknar var að greina kynjaðar hugmyndir þátttakenda um uppeldishlutverk foreldra sem birtast í sögum um heimanám barna á tímum COVID-19. Gögnum var safnað með sögulokaaðferð í apríl 2020, en þá hafði neyðarstigi verið lýst yfir á Íslandi. Þátttakendur fengu upphaf að sögu sem þeir áttu að ljúka. Þar var söguhetjan ýmist móðir eða faðir sem þurfti að sinna heimanámi með börnum sínum í samkomubanni. Auglýst var eftir þátttakendum á samfélagsmiðlum. Meirihluti þeirra sem tóku þátt voru menntaðar millistéttarkonur og endurspeglar rannsóknin því einkum sjónarhorn þeirra. Alls voru 97 sögur greindar með ígrundaðri þemagreiningu. Fraeðilega sjónarhornið var femínískt, þ.e. þemu voru sett í samhengi við ríkjandi orðraeður um foreldrahlutverkið í samtímamenningu og skoðað hvernig kynjuð hlutverk afmörkuðu taekifaeri og forgangsröðun sögupersóna. Í sögunum var einkum tekist á við orðraeðu nýfrjálshyggjunnar um skipulagða foreldrið sem nýtir hvert taekifaeri til að hámarka reynslu barnsins svo það verði skilvirkur þegn samfélagsins. Þrjú meginþemu voru greind: (1) Togstreitan um tímann. Þar kom fram að tíminn er kynjapólitísk auðlind. Verkefnamiðuð dagskrá krefst verkstjórnar og yfirlegu sem lenda oft á herðum maeðra. (2) Glíman við heimanámið: Endurmat og (ó)sigrar. Félagsleg staða, m.a. menntun og auðmagn, hefur áhrif á hversu raunhaefar forsendur foreldri hefur til að taka að sér heimanám. Kvíði og sektarkennd fylgir því að ráða ekki við námsefnið. (3) Bugaðir foreldrar rísa upp gegn óraunhaefum kröfum. Þemað lýsir andstöðu foreldra við hamingjuhandrit nýfrjálshyggjunnar þar sem gott foreldri er sér meðvitað um alla þá áhaettuþaetti sem hafa áhrif á velferð barnsins. Hamingjuna má finna í heimilisóreiðu og námi sem fylgir ekki dagskrá skóla heldur takti heimilisins. Niðurstöður sýna að þaer aðstaeður sem sköpuðust í samkomubanninu skerpa átakalínur milli heimila og samfélags og átakalínur innan heimila. Þaer lýsa einnig kvíða og sektarkennd sem fylgir því að geta ekki fylgt leikreglum nýfrjálshyggjuorðraeðunnar. Efnisorð: Nýfrjálshyggja, foreldrahlutverkið, COVID-19, sögulokaaðferð Inngangur Markmið þessarar rannsóknar var að greina kynjaðar hugmyndir þátttakenda um uppeldishlutverk foreldra í sögum um heimanám barna á tímum COVID-19. Gögnum var safnað með sögulokaaðferð á tímabilinu 7. til 24. apríl en þá hafði neyðarstigi verið lýst yfir á Íslandi vegna kórónuveirunnar. Á þessum tíma voru íslenskar barnafjölskyldur undir miklu álagi. Samkomubann hafði verið sett á og miðað við að ekki maettu fleiri en 20 manns koma saman. Foreldrar með börn á leik-og grunnskólaaldri gátu margir hverjir ekki sent börn sín í skóla og voru foreldrar hvattir til að aðstoða börn sín með nám og skólaverkefni heima við. Ekki baetti úr skák að brýnt var fyrir landsmönnum að einstaklingar eldri en 50 ára vaeru í meiri haettu en aðrir að fá alvarlega sýkingu ( og því erfitt fyrir þá foreldra sem þurftu einnig að sinna vinnu að biðja ömmu og afa að gaeta barna og sinna heimanámi þeirra. Fyrst og fremst starfsmenn í framlínustörfum fóru til vinnu utan heimilis en aðrir reyndu eftir megni að sinna starfi sínu heiman frá og jók það álagið á fjölskyldur.
Background: Educational outcomes in the United Kingdom vary as a function of students' family background, with those of lower socioeconomic status (SES) and certain ethnic minority groups among the worst affected. Aims: This pre-registered study investigates: (i) whether knowledge about students' socioeconomic and ethnic background influences teachers' judgements about the quality of their work and potential for the future, and (ii) the role of teachers' beliefs-most notably about meritocracy-in their practices. Sample: Our findings are based on the responses of 416 in-service (88%) and trainee (12%) teachers who successfully passed several stringent exclusion criteria. Methods: As part of a 2 × 2 independent measures design, teachers were randomly assigned to assess an identical piece of work ostensibly written by a student who varied by SES (higher vs. lower) and ethnicity (White British vs. Black Caribbean). Following this, they responded to several measures assessing their beliefs about education. Results: Teachers judged students of lower SES to be inferior to students of higher SES across a range of indicators. By contrast, we found no evidence of racial bias in teachers' judgements, though potential reasons for this are discussed. Teachers who believed that schooling is meritocratic were significantly less likely to support equity-enhancing teaching practices and initiatives. Conclusions: Unconscious teacher biases and beliefs may be contributing to the relative underperformance of students from poorer backgrounds. These findings provide a mandate for educational institutions to help teachers reflect upon, and develop the skills required to mitigate potentially harmful biases.
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The division of educational systems into different tracks—academic and vocational—represents one of the key elements in explaining social stratification and inequalities. Previous research identifies teachers' expectations as a critical factor to understand the relationship between tracking and social inequality. This paper discusses how ability is represented in teachers' discourses and whether and to what extent it works as a legitimation of systemic forms of tracking. Using in‐depth interviews with 35 secondary school tutors, we analyse how teachers draw on the concept of ability to explain students' unequal transitions from a lower comprehensive to an upper tracked education system in Barcelona (Spain). The results indicate three main elements: a highly naturalistic conception of students' abilities among teachers; a remarkably dichotomised conception of theoretical and practical abilities that match with the academic and vocational tracks; and a direct association between types of student and types of track based on different types of ability at a cognitive, behavioural and personal level. Overall, the analysis contributes to opening the ‘black box’ of the notion of ability as represented by teachers and to identifying what we call the ‘mechanisms of misrecognition’ which serve to naturalise, legitimise and reproduce a highly segmented post‐16 school system.
In the last ten years, Chile has implemented inclusive education policies aimed at making education accessible to students with disabilities. During the decade numerous researchstudies have been compiled building aknowledge corpus, about the effects and characteristics of these policies. Therefore, a Systematic Review was carried out, through a mixed method, that analyzed 79 articles that address the topic of Inclusive Education Policy in Chile. A characterization was developed using elements of descriptive statistics and a critical analysis of the discourse to determine the themes. The results show that Chile does not have an inclusive education policy, nor a hybrid model as described. Chile has an educational policy of accountability that is resisted by a discourse of respect of differences from professionals. This article can be useful to systematize current problems as well as serve as a basis for new research.
Full-text available
Meritocracy today involves the idea that whatever your social position at birth, society ought to offer enough opportunity and mobility for ‘talent’ to combine with ‘effort’ in order to ‘rise to the top’. This idea is one of the most prevalent social and cultural tropes of our time, as palpable in the speeches of politicians as in popular culture. In this book Jo Littler argues that meritocracy is the key cultural means of legitimation for contemporary neoliberal culture – and that whilst it promises opportunity, it in fact creates new forms of social division. Against Meritocracy is split into two parts. Part I explores the genealogies of meritocracy within social theory, political discourse and working cultures. It traces the dramatic U-turn in meritocracy’s meaning, from socialist slur to a contemporary ideal of how a society should be organised. Part II uses a series of case studies to analyse the cultural pull of popular ‘parables of progress’, from reality TV to the super-rich and celebrity CEOs, from social media controversies to the rise of the ‘mumpreneur’. Paying special attention to the role of gender, ‘race’ and class, this book provides new conceptualisations of the meaning of meritocracy in contemporary culture and society.
Inequality is on the rise: gains have been concentrated with a small elite, while most have seen their fortunes stagnate or fall. Despite what scholars and journalists consider a worrying trend, there is no evidence of growing popular concern about inequality. In fact, research suggests that citizens in unequal societies are less concerned than those in more egalitarian societies. How to make sense of this paradox? I argue that citizens’ consent to inequality is explained by their growing conviction that societal success is reflective of a meritocratic process. Drawing on 25 years of International Social Survey Program data, I show that rising inequality is legitimated by the popular belief that the income gap is meritocratically deserved: the more unequal a society, the more likely its citizens are to explain success in meritocratic terms, and the less important they deem nonmeritocratic factors such as a person’s family wealth and connections.
This article examines ‘character education’ in a school setting. It does so by drawing on ethnographic data collected at Milltown Community Academy, a secondary school in northern England. In this piece I focus on how character education at Milltown materialises and is enacted within the sites and everyday practices of schooling. By analysing the practices of teachers at the school, I show how, on one hand, the character initiative is embedded and complied with, but, on the other hand, teachers’ practice is also littered with instances of ‘refusal’ and non-compliance. Through recent reforms, Milltown Academy now houses an ‘entrepreneurship specialism’. At the school, ‘entrepreneurship’ is embedded in the school’s core ethos and curriculum and as part of this, the ‘entrepreneurial character’ is sold as necessary and progressive and is regularly deployed in narratives of attachment to and detachment from success and failure, respectively. Therefore, I make a claim that not only is a character agenda at place in the school but an ‘entrepreneurial character’ initiative. The analysis in this article is foregrounded in the idea that the Academy’s attempts to instil an ‘entrepreneurial character’ are part of a problematic policy complex that reproduces class-based inequalities, I argue, however, that those tasked with ‘teaching entrepreneurial character’ are indeed part of the process of the socio-cultural reproduction of inequality and dominance, but importantly, they also engage in plural and contradictory practices when it comes to putting the agenda into action.
The Rise of Meritocracy, Harmondsworth
  • M Young
M. Young, The Rise of Meritocracy, Harmondsworth, Pelican, 1958.
Perceptions of social mobility in Britain are characterised by a strange paradox
  • D Gaffney
  • B Baumberg
D. Gaffney and B. Baumberg, 'Perceptions of social mobility in Britain are characterised by a strange paradox', LSE Politics & Policy blog, 12 May 2014; policy/perceived-social-mobility-do-we-thinkthat-money-buys-success/ (accessed 23 February 2020).
  • S Collini
  • Blahspeak
S. Collini, 'Blahspeak', London Review of Books, vol. 32, no. 7, 7-8 April 2010, pp. 29-34; stefan-collini/blahspeak (accessed 23 February 2020).