Grammar schools, meritocracy and equality

24th March 2017

Leftovers are great. There’s nothing better than reheating last night’s dinner and enjoying a good meal all over again. Leave them in the fridge though and things start to go awry, a bit like grammar schools. They’ve been back on the menu since the budget, carrying with them the distinctive tang of tupperware that’s been closed for too long.

Theresa May has been trying to convince us that by reopening the box we can enjoy a meal every bit as tasty as it was when it was last served – around the time of the second world war. LKMco has argued repeatedly that bringing back selection will have a negative impact on the poorest pupils (see here, here and here for the three most recent examples). We are not lone voices; many others have made similar points (see here, here and here). Recently Nicky Morgan, Nick Clegg and Lucy Powell have even come together in an unlikely alliance united in opposition.

The evidence against grammar schools seems overwhelming, so why does the current government seem so intent on bringing them back?

The Guardian ran a piece earlier this week arguing that May and Donald Trump (who are both broadly in favour of parental choice) ‘want to create economic havens for the uber-rich’. This seems a little overdone. Rather than accusing Mrs May of an ‘ideological attack on the working class’, I want to argue in this blog that her and her detractors are simply talking about different things when they use the word ‘equality’.

Last week, May presented grammar schools as part of her vision of a Great Meritocracy. Grammars would tackle the ‘gross inequity’ that exists in the current education system, she argued.

I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it’s your talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.

However meritocracy and equality are not uncontroversial topics.

Meritocracy and equality

The idea of a meritocracy is popular with politicians across the political spectrum. It’s seen as a move away from the privilege of the wealthy and towards a system that rewards those who deserve it. Ironically however, the originator of the term used it pejoratively: he warned that the tripartite education system in postwar Britain would create a new ruling class. Hannah Arendt described this scenario as an oligarchy of talent; she was voicing fears that still persist today.

At the heart of meritocratic thinking lies something we can surely all agree on: that everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed. But what does equality of actually opportunity mean?

Political theorist Adam Swift argues there are three separate versions of this idea:

  • minimal equality, in which there is no active discrimination against particular groups;
  • conventional equality, in which the state somehow acts to address socio-economic disadvantages (like poverty or parental qualifications);
  • radical equality, in which the state makes sure everyone can achieve the same outcome regardless of socio-economic or natural factors (like sex, IQ or height).

The US Right are champions of minimal equality. They argue that legislation alone provides enough equality for a just society. Radical equality is closer to communism: its emphasis is on equality of outcome. In the UK, the consensus generally sits around conventional equality. Mrs May’s rhetoric indicates she’s aligned with this view: “tackle it we must,” she says about unfair disadvantage. She wants to make a change, but in which direction will her policy on grammar schools take us?

When New Labour forbade the establishment of any new all-selective schools in 1998, it was widely perceived to herald an increase in equality of opportunity. In Swift’s terms, this meant moving from minimal to conventional equality. State intervention was being used to address the problem of wealthier parents using their resources to secure their children a disproportionately high number of places at selective schools.

A step back

What’s happening now is the reverse. By expanding selection across British schools, Mrs May is giving wealthier parents more opportunities to ‘get ahead’. Those of us who oppose the policy should nonetheless be prepared to accept that she may not be acting in bad faith. It’s probably not part of some dastardly conspiracy to screw over anyone born outside of Berkshire. May genuinely seems to believe she’s moving towards equality, in the same direction as Labour were in 1998. Yet her actions, in removing an existing state intervention rather than implementing a new one, will in reality take us back towards the minimal definition.

This gives us a new angle with which to debate the reintroduction of selection. Rather than standing our ground and accusing the government of malice, we should perhaps engage with its ideas and challenge Mrs May on what she really means when she talks about equality. Research has shown that middle class children born in the years following the second world war were four times more likely than their working class peers to end up in service level jobs by 1972. Hopefully Mrs May will realise that grammar schools, and the minimal equality they embody, are leftovers that should remain firmly in the box they’ve been consigned to.