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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.…

Category Archives: Writings

How politics lost touch with everyday life

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.…

Putting the special back into special needs.

I can still vividly remember Michael Gove’s first speech to the House of Commons as Secretary of State for Education in 2010. A blast of oratory in which he charged the outgoing New Labour government of failing poor children with talent.

During Labour’s 13 years in office, Gove thundered, on average only 45 children on free school meals had won a place at Oxford or Cambridge – a ‘shameful record’.

In the decade since then, this theme of social mobility has continued to dominate public and political debates regarding the success, or otherwise, of our school system.

But what about the educational experiences of the many hundreds and thousands of young people not considered conventional ‘winners’, particularly those with SEND? Here, the debates become rather more muted and evasive.

Most politicians talk the talk of inclusion, but their rhetoric sits uneasily with the decade-long drive to increase exam results come what may, and the overhaul of SEND funding that took place in 2014 amid the swingeing cuts of the austerity years.

Things have worsened still in the wake of COVID-19. A recent poll of a thousand parents highlighted a ‘widespread failure’ to restore SEND provision when children returned to school in September 2020, leaving a ‘sizeable’ proportion of SEND children unable to return to school at all.

Yet there are some bright spots on the horizon. The issue of SEND provision in English schools is increasingly coming under the spotlight, thanks to a form of parental campaigning that’s much louder than before, more effective and better at shaping the debate and shaming policymakers.

In 2018/19, the Education Select Committee looked at SEND provision in what was one of the longest and most wide-ranging inquiries ever undertaken by a Select Committee, receiving over 700 submissions in the process.

According to Committee Chair Robert Halfon, the resulting report showed up how, “Families continue to face a treacle of bureaucracy, a postcode lottery of provision, buck-passing and confusion in a system that breeds conflict.”

Another new book Young People on the Margins, edited by Loic Menzies and Sam Baars from the Centre for Education and Youth ( my review to be published soon) highlights six discrete categories of students, including those with special needs, who have been marginalised over the past decades: their specific needs and circumstances misunderstood or neglected by a system needing to prove its ‘high standards’ in narrow terms.

But we mustn’t forget those on the frontline – the skilled and experienced practitioners continually developing new approaches to learning.…

Natural Born Rebel

History loves nothing more than a beautiful heroine battling for a just cause. For the past 100 years, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst have been fixed in the collective mind as glamorous symbols of the protracted struggle for votes for women. In contrast, Sylvia, the second daughter of this remarkable family, remains, according to Rachel Holmes, “one of the greatest unsung political figures of the 20th century” – a marked failure of public recognition that Holmes hopes to correct in this exhaustively researched and deeply sympathetic study of a unique life.

It is not hard to see why it has taken Sylvia so long to emerge from the shadow of her mother and sister. There was nothing fashionable about her; friend and foe alike commented on her inattention to matters of appearance (she thought lipstick an abomination). And, while Sylvia arguably gave as much, if not more, to the fight for women’s suffrage as her mother and sister, once that struggle was finished, if not completely won (full adult female suffrage was not granted in the UK until 1928), she never stopped resisting authority and fighting unpopular battles. While Emmeline and Christabel became supporters of the First World War and empire loyalists, Sylvia remained a socialist and a fierce opponent of colonialism, and the encroaching threat of fascism.

As the subtitle of this volume suggests, the tenor and tenacity of Sylvia’s public life might have been foreseen. Born in 1882, the second daughter of the radical barrister Richard Pankhurst and the fiery, implacable Emmeline, her early years were spent in an intensely political household, first in Manchester, then in London and then back in Manchester after the collapse of Emmeline’s ill-fated and poorly managed “art furniture” shop in Euston: a kind of utopian, feminine forerunner of Habitat. The Pankhurst home was filled with radical and revolutionary figures of the time, such as the Labour giant Keir Hardie, the Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin and the Indian nationalist leader Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian member of the House of Commons. (Tellingly, Holmes notes, Christabel later “edited out her family’s intimate friendships with revolutionaries and radicals”.)

To modern eyes, elements of the Pankhurst children’s upbringing seem unduly harsh. There were regular battles with both parents over food, and Sylvia was sometimes tied to the bedpost all day for refusing to take cod-liver oil; the introspective, dreamy young girl “could not curb her will to resist”.…

How the UK government is ‘settling scores’ with unions by axing crucial union learning fund

Ann McKelvey enjoys her job as a cover supervisor at the Co-op academy, a secondary school in Leeds. She loves the school, where she has been since 2013, and working with young people, but deep down she has always wanted to be a teacher. “The problem was I didn’t have A-levels,” she says. “And I suffered from impostor syndrome, always coming up with 101 reasons why I couldn’t achieve what I wanted to.”

Everything changed in 2016, when McKelvey was offered the chance to do a literacy taster course called Return to Learn, provided by her union, Unison, in conjunction with the union learning fund (ULF), a national government-funded partnership between unions and employers. “I really enjoyed it,” says McKelvey. “The tutor hadn’t gone to university until he was 40. I looked at him and thought, ‘Well, he’s been there, done it’. That inspired me to think I could do the same.”

McKelvey took a foundation course in special educational needs, an area of particular interest, and is now studying for a degree at Leeds University one day a week, and working for the other four. She has a clear goal in sight: to become a teacher at the school where she works.

“If I hadn’t done that first course, I wouldn’t have gone on to develop as I have, or do my degree,” she says. “I now have a vision of what I want to achieve, and how to get there.”

Chris Gurdev, 37, has an equally inspiring story. In his late twenties, he was working as an assistant manager at the Sunbury-on-Thames branch of the Yorkshire building society. Learn representatives, and Aegis, his union, encouraged him to take courses in leadership and management and, with his employer, to practise these skills at work and in the community.

Eventually he became a chartered member and fellow of the Chartered Management Institute. He now works as a skills coach for Oxford Applied Training, a job he speaks of with passion. “I never thought I would be where I am now. If it wasn’t for ULF, I wouldn’t be able to do what I love.”

McKelvey and Gurdev are among the quarter of a million men and women who have benefited every year from the ULF, established in 1998 to provide courses in partnership between employers and unions, and supported by government ever since.

But successes like theirs may soon be a thing of the past.…

Mass Covid testing in England’s schools

Mass Covid testing in England’s schools

Mass Covid testing at the drop of a hat is the latest bad idea for England’s schools

After the exams fiasco, a plan to turn schools into test centres shows politicians have still not learned to listen to teachers

Schools returning in January must provide for mass testing of pupils. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian Mon 21 Dec 2020 13.56 GMT

It is hard to believe just how badly the government is handling the schools element of this Covid-induced crisis. Last week’s decision to threaten Greenwich council with legal action over its attempts to curb galloping infection rates looked heavy-handed from the start. Given that those same alarming numbers were acknowledged by the prime minister in his announcement on Saturday of the cancellation of Christmas relaxation plans, such threats now appear both absurd and rankly hypocritical.

Yet even this misjudgment is overshadowed by the chaos threatened by the government’s latest wacky idea: schools returning in early January must provide for the mass testing of pupils, turning themselves into the equivalent of a field hospital. Even the most politic of school leaders have called this announcement “shockingly chaotic”, “last-minute” and “a new low”.

While Scotland has sensibly delayed pupils’ physical return to schools by two weeks, here in England heads and governors must supposedly spend their Christmas break sorting out staggered starting times from early January, erecting or otherwise creating special testing centres and coordinating the staff to administer the tests (a medical not an educational task), with only vague offers of “reimbursement costs” and the involvement of the army.

Few need reminding that this is not the first such fiasco of the past nine months. The disaster over last summer’s exams, when the government was adamant that it would rely on official algorithms to predict results, until forced by public outrage to back down, remains deeply etched on the public mind. Yet it looks as if we are heading for similar problems next summer as the government is, once again, stubbornly sticking to its line that there will be exams-as-usual, albeit with minor concessions over timings and course content. In a pattern now becoming typical of the Johnson government, most nervously expect a late U-turn, and more chaos like we saw in August. Only this time, it could have been entirely preventable, with the introduction of moderated assessment in many, if not all, subjects.

Talking to teachers, heads and union leaders, I hear rising fury and despair at recent government actions and policies, many of them unworkable, un-costed and pushed out at the very last minute.…

From the archive: the truth about (many) writers’ incomes

This piece was first published in Mslexia magazine in March 2017, but it is still relevant today. Click on the link below to read it.

MSLEXIA MARCH 2017 copy

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.…

From the archive: A Class Act

He’s a good storyteller, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, and he tells a particularly good story about the Lost Missionary: a few years ago, a confused old man kept ringing the Institute of Race Relations, of which Sivanandan is the director, but nobody knew what he wanted. The caller muttered something about wanting to help people, to give aid to those in need, yet he was so obviously in need himself. Eventually out of pity, one of the staff invited him in.

The moment he walked into the room, Sivanandan strode towards him and warmly embraced him. “Of course, I recognised him immediately,” he says now. “He was a famous missionary who had done important anthropological work in India.” The story tells as much about the embracer as the embraced. There is the fact that Sivanandan immediately recognised a bowed-down old man for the noble human being he was. Then there is the instant recall of the content and significance of the missionary’s work, both practical and intellectual. Finally, there is Siva’s kindness – that simple embrace.

But the moral of this tale goes deeper. For it tells us something about a fraternity – not quite secret but never fully understood by those who judge success by material wealth or professional achievement – which devotes itself to the cause of others. There is nothing religious in Sivanandan’s value system, for his is a militant vocabulary of class and racial struggle, a political language inevitably more radical than the Christian’s. But that day the Lost Missionary came to the institute, both men recognised and appreciated a kindred spirit.

Here, all resemblances end. For if time has been cruel to, or at the very least neglectful of, many who dedicate themselves to the interests of others, it has been kind to Sivanandan, or Siva, as he is known to friends and enemies alike. He may not be as well known as many other post-war black intellectuals and activists, but later life has brought him recognition from a wider audience, praise from beyond the circle of the politically committed. Activist, speaker, essayist and latterly novelist, he is now considered one of the most powerful radical voices writing on race, politics, culture and class in Britain over the last 30 years.

Many of his essays are considered classics, from his loving, empirical account of post-war black politics, “From Resistance to Rebellion”, published in the early Thatcher era, to his more recent analyses of the labyrinthine workings of the new globalism.…

Contentious claims in Tory manifesto promise

There was something almost sci-fi about the Conservative manifesto launch. A sea of cabinet ministers, packed into what looked like a cross between a cattle shed and a car park, dressed in various shades of blue, listening to the navy-clad prime minister intone on her favourite themes of this election. Strong and stable with everything, basically.

There was very little about education, from the podium at least, bar some references to a “Great Meritocracy” and the wholly uncontentious promise of a ‘good school place for every child’ (what politician could promise anything else?) More frustratingly, the manifesto itself yields not much more detail on the possible shape of our school system over the next five years.

On the two issues that have come to dominate education over the past year – funding and the threatened return of selection – we were offered intriguing concessions and a stubborn lack of clarity respectively. Funding first: clearly the government has been worried by the rising chorus of public concern concerning cuts to school budgets and the potentially devastating implications of the Fair Funding formula, particularly in areas like London where relatively generous levels of funding have achieved such good results over the past decade.

The Conservatives get round this by pledging to axe free school meals for primary school children (offering them Brexit – sorry, I mean breakfast – instead) and redistributing the rest to make up funding shortfalls.

On the face of it, it’s quite a canny move, suggesting both responsiveness to public concern and, perhaps, a recognition of disquiet on even the centre-left about the original Lib Dem policy of free school meals for some primary school children, and Labour’s plans to expand it by putting VAT on private school fees.

Even so, the funding pledge is not generous as it looks, given that the cut in free school meals accounts for only £650 million, and £3 billion is money already allocated for growth in pupil numbers.

On selection, we get remarkably little bar the return to some contentious guff about ordinary working families. “We will lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools, subject to conditions, such as allowing pupils to join at other ages as well as 11.”

That simple statement alone is, of course, important. If May wins on this manifesto, any possible rebellion by Tory MPs, and peers of all political stripes uneasy at the plans for more grammars, will be robbed of legitimacy.…

How to make the world a better place

The announcement of the general election coincides with the 50th anniversary of the May Day Manifesto. Here left thinkers and writers have their say on what a 2017 version of the famous manifesto might look like.

Terry Eagleton:

‘As a 24-year-old Cambridge academic, I was lucky enough to be involved in the writing of the May Day Manifesto of 1967. It was a genuinely collaborative project among a range of leftwing intellectuals of the day, a bunch of whom descended on Raymond Williams’s cottage outside Cambridge to cobble together a powerful indictment of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. EP Thompson scribbled away in one corner of the living room, Stuart Hall discussed neocolonialism in another, while Ralph Miliband phoned in from the LSE. The general air was one of tweeds and pipe smoke. There were no women, a fact that even the most dedicated militant of the day would not have found in the least strange.

It would be hard to muster such an impressive bunch of socialist minds today. The intellectual left is thinner on the ground than it was. We have lost almost all the leading figures of that historical moment – though lost them to death rather than to apathy or apostasy. The political climate of the time offered more opportunities for the left as well. One year after the manifesto was published, student revolt swept across Europe, while the United States was plunged into the twin crises of civil rights and the Vietnam war. Today across the Atlantic, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

The manifesto never had any strong roots in the working-class movement. Yet it intervened eloquently on its behalf, calling for a Labour government that would work for real socialism. It has taken half a century for that demand to be realised, however partially and precariously. Only a decade or so on from the manifesto, the labour movement was on the back foot, savagely assaulted by Thatcherism and by an ugly new form of corporate capitalism. These were onslaughts from which it has never really recovered. A May Day Manifesto for today, then, would need to put the rights of working people at its centre. It would also need to insist that the UK is never in a position to take any action that might result in the incineration of millions of innocent people.’

Ken Loach

We will reverse the privatisation of our public services and major industries.…

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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