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THE CRISIS OF THE MERITOCRACY

THE CRISIS OF THE MERITOCRACY

The crisis of the meritocracy: Britain’s transition to mass education since the Second World War

PETER MANDLER, 2020

Oxford: Oxford University Press

361pp, hardback, £25, ISBN 9780198840145

Cambridge historian Peter Mandler has a fundamentally optimistic story to tell about the growth of universal education in Britain over the last seventy years and one can sense his stubborn resistance to any more sceptical interpretation on almost every page of this dense and impressive history. Since the close of the ‘people’s war’ in 1945, Mandler argues, we have witnessed the rise of mass education, initially at secondary level, and more recently in higher education where participation rates currently nudge New Labour’s much vaunted promise of 50 per cent. Contrary to established narratives that have put this development down to economic growth or significant pieces of legislation, Mandler identifies the expansion of educational opportunity as the result of a constantly shifting interplay of demand and supply that has reinforced ‘the deepening compact between the individual citizen and the state which came with formal democracy and the idea of equal citizenship’. Education continues to be seen by the public as one of the ‘decencies’ of life’; hence the inexorable rise in demand for what Mandler often refers to as ‘more and better’.

In short, the people (sort of) did it themselves.

On the face of it, this is an attractive proposition, yet one that is oddly tricky to grapple with, given the mass of contradictory or partial information available to us concerning what the ‘people’ have wanted at any given historical moment or, indeed, who exactly the people are. Mandler deliberately employs ‘a promiscuous array of methods and sources’, sifting through realms of evidence from official publications, interviews, academic studies, pollsters’ findings and demographic surveys in an attempt to clarify the complex relationship between government policy, public demand and social change. This promiscuity encourages him to prosecute his subsidiary critique of the alleged tendency of academic disciplines to work in unhelpful silos. Economists and social scientists, he charges, have paid scant attention to educational expansion while educationists and political historians tend to ‘chop up long-term trends into short political segments’ with many on the left falling into a ‘declinist narrative’ in which the failures of a ‘divided’ Labour party feature heavily as a reason for a lack of genuine progress (an analysis Mandler anyway rejects). But we shall return to the problem of we whingeing progressives in a moment.…

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How to lift a heart: the joy in protest and seeking political change

How do you define or promote something as elusive as happiness? Most of us might tick the box marked “cheerful” on Wednesday morning but could well consider ourselves crashingly miserable come Sunday afternoon. And suppose we can empirically establish contentment over a longish period, how do we unpick the underlying reasons for it? A happy relationship or a triple-lock pension? A course of mindfulness or a handful of supportive friends?

Lynne Segal gives us her take on the matter straight off. The world is a place of “unbearable pain and sadness”, the experience of melancholy is an important part of an authentic emotional life. As for the official emphasis on happiness, it is insultingly limited, dishonest and functional. “We need to resist the happiness imperative beamed down at us from every other billboard. . .” In Segal’s view, “radical happiness” involves us in an enterprise very different in scope and far more meaningful: the seeking of political change, and with it the experience of solidarity and collective joy.

Scathing of the ways that the happiness industry has played into official narratives, Segal is particularly critical of influential figures such as Richard Layard, Tony Blair’s so-called happiness tsar, who chose to “ignore the effects of structural inequality on the emotional distress it measures” preferring instead to consider emotions in the context of Gross Domestic Product, then compounding his intellectual and political sins by promoting the widespread use of the quick-fix remedy Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Instead of Layard, she says, we should all have been listening to British epidemiologist Michael Marmot who “convincingly researched the quite devastating effects of poverty and inequality on social misery generally, and individually psychic health in particular.”

It is a feature of all Segal’s work that when she decides to tackle a subject – be it the history of women’s experience of heterosexuality, the rise of essentialist feminisms or, most recently, the politics of ageing – she examines it from every conceivable angle. She always makes me think of someone picking up a stone on the beach and turning it, with infinite exhaustive care, this way and that. Here, then, she gives us trenchant chapters, complete with plenty of historical and theoretical readings. She takes on the decline of carnivals, festivals and other expressions of communal joy (the spontaneous gathering of those “without institutional power” is always threatening to the powerful) as well as our changing understanding of depression, noting the sinister link between a rise in diagnoses for serious depression and bipolar disorder, and the discovery and marketing of drugs for treating them.…

There’s still a lot of work to do – but let’s hear it for the NES

There could well be at least a couple of years before another general election, certainly if the beleaguered and divided government has anything to do with it. And while Labour has committed itself to continue to campaign over the summer, there is an equally important job to do in the months and years ahead, which is to build on some of the bolder ideas to emerge during the election.

The crisis in school funding was at the heart of last June’s campaign but, as we see from concessions made by the government in the weeks since, and the re-appointment of the sensible and emollient Justine Greening as education secretary, the Tories now recognise that they urgently need to do something about the pay and conditions of public sector workers. Besides, it is highly unlikely that the next election, whenever it comes, will be fought on the same issues in the same way. Context is all.

All the more reason, then, to develop one of the most potentially significant proposals to be floated by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, that of a National Education Service (NES): the joining-up of disparate elements of education from nurseries through schools to universities and adult education, free at the point of use. Corbyn himself has trumpeted the idea since his election in 2015 but not much solid detail emerged during those two years; nor did it over the course of the election campaign itself, with commentators concentrating on the headline issues (the Labour plan to abolish tuition fees) or giving the entire Labour offer short shrift on the grounds that it was not radical enough.

Whether this last claim is fair (and I would argue both that it is and it isn’t) there is room for a much broader, bolder vision. During the Adonis-Gove years official ideas about ‘education, education,education’ have dangerously narrowed, with government increasingly focussed on the secondary years where it has trumpeted a diluted version of the grammar school/public school curriculum to be implemented by dangerously under-resourced state schools, harried professionals and, indeed, non-professionals. In higher education, the values of business have come to dominate and distort the business of learning to the benefit neither of students nor academics. More broadly, I also wonder whether progressives have become so desensitised by years of Gove and co. that they now self-censor even their own best hopes and dismiss out of hand this idea of a cradle-to-grave education system, animated by a richer, deeper purpose, to be run in a different way?…

Brought up by a blackshirt

Just a couple of years ago, Fascist in the Family might have been greeted as no more than an interesting addition to the ever-­expanding genre of family memoir: a child’s unflinching account of a wrong-headed, right-wing father set against the panoramic backdrop of the divided domestic politics and international conflagrations of the first half of the 20th century.

Francis Beckett couldn’t have known it – these 396 densely packed pages must have been years in the making – but this publication comes at a political moment that subtly changes our reading of the particular history he describes. Today, in our world dominated by the hard men (and women) of the new right, the book reads more as a chill warning. British fascism of the pre-war period grew out of similar soil to Brexit, Bannon and Banks, including the cruel slashing of state benefits, a paralysing crisis in the labour movement, the false lure of nationalism, the rise of the extreme right on the Continent and the vile scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities.

John Beckett entered the Commons in 1924 as the youngest MP on the Labour benches. Within a few years, he had “become the most extreme, most newsworthy left-wing Labour rebel of his day”, known for his provocative speeches and outrageous tactics. He was a talented speaker, offering “fireworks and crudity” to working-class audiences across the country, an ingenious and indefatigable organiser and an energetic and successful womaniser. His impatience with the Labour and trades union establishment, combined with an irrational and uncontrollable anti-Semitism and reflexive nationalism, led him to Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF), where he became the head of propaganda.

At first worshipping the charismatic Mosley, a man with whom he shared the ability to stir up a crowd, Beckett soon came to distrust the high-handed, aristocratic BUF leader as a vindictive narcissist. He broke away to form the anti-Semitic National Socialist League with figures such as William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and A K Chesterton (a distant cousin of the better-known G K), and later the British People’s Party (BPP).

In the words of his only son, Beckett’s political career ended in “the squalid wastelands of neo-Nazi politics”, earning him four years’ internment during the Second World War and a bleak form of social exile in the postwar period. Francis, an impressively dispassionate biographer, is also well placed to unearth the twisted roots of his father’s anti-Semitism: he reports that John’s adored mother, Eva, was almost certainly Jewish, a fact he kept hidden all his life.…

Why don’t more schools focus on public speaking? Discuss

It’s Monday morning and the start of a year 7 English class at Highbury Grove school, a large comprehensive in north London. The students have been played the soundtrack to a film and hands are creeping up as they are questioned about the role background music plays in setting the mood.

Answers are tentative, but as the pace picks up, their vocabulary strengthens with discussion of “foreshadowing” and “transition” and “perspective”. Encouraged by their young hipsterish teacher, Lewis Green, who tells them that “just because I challenge you it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it just means I want you to explain more”, their answers become longer and more eloquent. By the end of the class, well over half the pupils have their hands up, bursting to speak.

An ordinary, lively English lesson? Not quite. Hardly a word has been put to paper. The emphasis of this lesson, in a school in which 70% of students are in receipt of pupil premium, is on speaking skills. The approach is based on the work of consultant Martin Robinson, author of two books that attempt to bring classical principles to modern comprehensive education, surprise hits in recent years.

Robinson, who advises Highbury Grove, says: “It is important that young people develop educated opinions, that is, opinions that emerge after exploring and weighing up different sides of an argument.” Robinson believes an educated 18-year-old “should be able to respond to gentle interrogation and not worry when they get to the point of not knowing, relish it even because they can explore and find out more”.

This week sees the launch of a campaign, the Oracy Network, to raise the profile of public speaking in the national curriculum, backed by the English Speaking Union (ESU) and involving, among others, Peter Hyman, founder of School 21 in east London and an enthusiast for the cause. Too many schools still don’t seem to know about the benefits of encouraging pupils to be confident speakers, or haven’t integrated oracy into other parts of the curriculum. A new studypublished today by LKMCO thinktank, reports that provision is patchy. “Few schools evaluate the quality of pupils’ verbal contributions in lessons, or communicate with parents about the quality of these contributions.”

The report says 57% of teachers say they have not received training in oracy in the past three years, and 53% would not know where to look for more information if they needed it.…

Hold the front page! Tory peer offers ‘ringing endorsement’ of Tory school policies.

Some of you may have been a little puzzled by headlines yesterday, including in the Guardian, proclaiming ‘Soaring state schools threaten private sector.’ It is not often that a Guardian lead story risks sounding like a Tory press release or a Toby Young blog but, as I argue in a post on today’s Local Schools Network, this is certainly one report that begs rather more questions than it answers: Who or what was the source of this lead story? The chief source is the much quoted Ralph Lucas, owner of The Good Schools Guide ( available on subscription), the education bible of the upper-middle classes. While many newspapers and the BBC report that Lucas is an Eton educated hereditary peer, fewer mention that he is a Conservative and that according to the UK Parliament website he is listed as a member of the Tory group in the Lords – a rather crucial omission given the underlying politics of the story. Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network has written previously about the political leanings of the 12th Baron. Which schools is Lucas talking about? Safe to say that Lucas is not referring to schools in the AET chain, many of which have been recently criticised by Ofsted, nor indeed to some of the excellent comprehensives in impoverished areas around the country. Media discussion of the new, improved state sector concentrates on those in wealthy, urban locations, such as my old school Holland Park or Toby Young’s West London Free School ( which has yet to produce a single set of GCSE results), schools which operate in highly favourable circumstances in relation to everything from admissions to resources to government support and, of course, media publicity. Are private schools really on the run? Soaring fees, in a time of austerity, have produced a lot of grumbling about the burden on parents who choose the private sector. But this is nothing new. Exactly the same stories were run in 2009 but without the pro-government gloss. Then as now, those private schools most affected are small and medium sized establishments outside London, forced or welcomed (take your pick) into the state sector under the free schools and academy programme. Soaring fees have clearly not affected the sector as a whole, particularly at the elite end. According to William Richardson, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents leading independent schools, ‘pupil numbers are currently at record levels in private schools.’…

She blames the media. And I think she’s right

As a new drama series called Pan Am – a mile high version of Mad Men by the sounds of it – prepares to hit our screens, a brilliant piece by Tanya Gold today on the appalling way in which discussion of womens lives, and feminism, is framed by the press and most broadcasters in this country. The situation is pretty similar in terms of other issues with any radical tinge whatsoever, including trades unionism, the left in general and alternative views of state education.…

Forming ideas

Below, an interview by Samantha Laurie  in November’s RIchmond magazine. Please click  Melissa layout to read.…

Interview on the New Schools Revolution…

…with an interesting website called New Left Direction. See what you think – a slightly different kind of interview.…

School wars heat up

Things get a little heated on Woman’s Hour this morning. Me v Anne McElvoy. Decide for yourself.

And Michael Gove personally attacks founders of Local Schools Network in the Evening Standard.…

Mirror, mirror…….

Yup, I go tabloid at last. Love David Cameron’s Mr Chips hat..…

Latest writing

How politics lost touch with everyday life

Early on in his elegiac study of how our literary and aesthetic past might animate our political future, Marc Stears singles out DH Lawrence’s “wonderful essay” Insouciance, written in 1928, which he believes embodies “the vision that animates this book”. In the essay, Lawrence describes a meeting with two elderly ladies who try to draw him into a conversation about “Benito Mussolini and the potential threat he posed to the world” as he watches two men mow the lawn of the hotel where they are all staying. For Lawrence, “the worst ogress couldn’t have treated me more villainously. I don’t care about right and wrong, politics, fascism… There was a direct sensuous contact between me, the lake, mountains, cherry trees, mowers… All this was cut off by the fatal shears of the abstract word fascism… the little old lady… beheaded me, and flung my head into abstract space.”

It may be difficult for a modern reader to agree with Lawrence that he is the true representative of what he calls “actual living”. But both Lawrence and Stears are trying to make the larger point that it is in our daily life that the most significant experiences reside and that politics is too often unhelpfully broad-brush, arrogantly distant from the things that really matter. At the same time, we are alerted to the central problem of any study that ambitiously seeks to reclaim the values of everyday life. Whose everyday life? Whose values?

Stears is an academic, policymaker (currently director of the Sydney Policy Lab) and former speech writer for Ed Miliband, and it soon becomes clear that his ideas spring from cherished memories of a happy Welsh childhood. Celebrations of such familial and communal values, he argues, can be found in the writings of Lawrence, George Orwell, JB Priestley and Dylan Thomas (particularly in Thomas’s Under Milk Wood), as well as the images of the photographer Bill Brandt and the artist Barbara Jones. Taken together, Stears argues, their work represents a generous if unselfconscious social solidarity that sustained the best of Britishness through the interwar years and the Second World War, and found its apotheosis in the 1951 Festival of Britain: a guiding vision that could once again inspire our fractured nation.

Stears’s quest is interesting and bold, but his attempt to unearth a consistent theme across a medley of early 20th-century literary works and then to apply them to the pressing problems of 21st-century Britain soon becomes fraught – as he acknowledges – with contradictions.…

Latest news & events

A Cold War Tragedy

Melissa will be in conversation with Anne Sebba about her new book, ‘Ethel Rosenberg – A Cold War Tragedy.’

Weds 15th September 2021, 5-6pm, in the Robert Graves Tent at the Wimbledon Book Festival.

More information here.

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