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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.…

Tag Archives: free schools

A very English mess

Nice try, Nicky. Despite official efforts to bury the bad news of the  government’s major volte face on forced academisation under rolling election coverage, Morgan’s climbdown late last week has been widely publicised and celebrated by what had turned into a formidable array of opponents stretching right across the political spectrum.

In the end, Morgan dared not defy a handful of powerful Tory backbenchers or shire leaders – according to one, the government had simply ‘gone bonkers’ – implacably opposed to having their local power over education destroyed.

But there was a different sort of retreat, just as significant in its way, also at the end of the week.   Free school founder Toby Young, now stepping down as CEO of the West London Free School he set up in 2011,  has expressed regrets at his ‘arrogance’ on school reform in a Schools Week interview, in particular his criticism of other teachers, heads and local authorities. ‘I hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better.’

It appears that Young (who now claims that his remarks were taken out of context) has finally caught up with some of the more complex social and political reasons why so many local schools can’t keep pace with the rich, socially selective independent sector that he so admires.

For anyone who has crossed Young over the years, this was a bitter sweet moment ( my phone was buzzing all afternoon).  Let’s not forget the huge part he played in undermining public and parental confidence in state education, particularly non-selective schools,  during the early years of the Coalition which led some commentators seriously to suggest that critics of free schools were ‘actively evil.’

It all feels like another age now. Both Morgan and Young’s retreats signal one more important staging post in the fast diminishing credibility of the school reforms unleashed by the Tories after 2010. If Gove brought an intellectual energy and spurious coherence to a fundamentally flawed project, Morgan embodies the rabbit-caught-in-headlights nervousness of someone placed in charge of a convoy of rackety vehicles that now threatens to veer out of control.

Huge change has been forced through our system at all levels on scant evidence and even less meaningful consultation. There is no substantive proof that academisation is the answer to improved school performance and I don’t know anyone who still argues that  free schools remain a vehicle for meaningful parental involvement.Young himself, an exceptionally well -networked figure in Tory circles, was always an outlier. …

Radio 4’s Two Rooms shows how Labour is getting it right

Last night I took part in BBC Radio 4’s soft focus pre-election programme Two Rooms, along with Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator ( which now, rather amusingly, calls itself ‘ the oldest continuously published magazine..’) The basic premise of the programme is that two groups of people – one broadly optimistic about their lives , one much less so – sit in two separate rooms debating the same issues. You could call it the Two Nations – Sort Of. Very post-ideological, very Radio 4.

In the first programme, which broadcast some moving stories of terrible poverty in Britain 2015, the Two Rooms talked about personal finance; last night the group discussed education and opportunity.

it was an interesting, if frustrating experience. (Recording took four hours – so the programme was heavily edited.) Many in Room A, to which I was assigned, were older and had come out into a (relatively) buoyant job market, where qualifications had some meaning and provided them with a ladder of opportunity. One participant had re-trained, via an access course, to become a physiotherapist. One quiet mid-life woman described how she had gone from her comprehensive to Cambridge, where she was very unhappy, but said that her education had opened up all sorts of opportunities as a result. There was only one privately educated person in the room. From Northern Ireland, he lacked the air of entitlement that so often surrounds his English counterparts.

What these stories showed, I argued, was the impact of recent, and often dramatic, cuts in everything from access courses to career guidance, not to mention well paying jobs; hence the experience of Room B, where those in possession of a degree could not even get any employment, even at the minimum wage. One younger member of Room A spoke at length, and very movingly, about how, at every stage of his life, it was the welfare state that had saved him: free secondary education, help with council housing and social services.

Interestingly, we were there to discuss education but hardly anyone mentioned it, except in the briefest and most personal terms (‘my history teacher really helped me’). There were few complaints about state schools and no mention at all of the last five years of upheaval in our schools under the Coalition. Nor, I am sad to say, did the Radio 4 include my report on the findings of a recent LSE/Manchester University study, by Dr Ruth Lupton among others, that the end result of the Coalition’s prolonged experiment in marketisation has been a marginal increase in the results of the brightest, and a corresponding dip in the results of children from more deprived families.…

Some autumn events

IN CONVERSATION WITH OWEN JONES

September 29th, 7 pm. I will be in conversation with Owen Jones about his new book The Establishment: And how they get away with it

Location: Sutton House, 2-4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London E9 6JQ

The event is put on by Pages bookshop in Hackney. Go to their events page to book tickets for this event.

HENLEY LITERARY FESTIVAL

Feminist writer and activist Laura Bates and I: in conversation with Monisha Rajesh, talking about young women today, fourth wave feminism, sexism today and much much more.

2pm Town Hall £9

Box Office Mon-Fri 10am-2pm 01491 575948

CONFERENCE ON WOMEN AND EDUCATION

Thirtieth anniversary conference organised by Mulberry School for Girls:’ Educating Twenty First Century Women: Passion, Possibilities and Power’ on Friday 10th October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth 11 Conference Centre, Westminster, London.

The afternoon panel, beginning at 2pm, will discuss the empowerment and disempowerment of women in powerful institutions such as politics, religion and law. The other speakers are: Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP – Shadow Home Secretary Reverend Rose Hudson Wilkin – Speakers Chaplin at the House of Lords Eleanor Mills – Editorial Director of The Sunday Times Munira Mirza – Deputy Mayor of Education and Culture – Greater London Authority Jo Wilding – Human Rights Barrister at Garden Court Chamber – Ndidi Okezie – Educationalist and Regional Director at Teach First Chair: Kat Banyard – Founder of UKFeminsta and Author of The Equality Illusion

SYMPOSIUM ON EDUCATION AND RUSKIN.

I will be taking part in a symposium put on by the Guild of St. George and The Ruskin Library and Research Centre (Lancaster University) entitled: Education for Education’s Sake? A Symposium on Ruskin and modern education at Toynbee Hall 28 Commercial St, London E1 6LS United Kingdom 10.00 a.m. 4.30 p.m. Saturday, 11 October, 2014

WOMEN’S THERAPY CENTRE: ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING

The theme of this AGM will be mothers and daughters. Also speaking will be Dilek Gungor, senior psychotherapist, who will talk about a new WTC initiative for Mothers and Daughters.

11 am – 1pm, Friday October 17th, 2014

Islington Town Hall, Upper Street, London N1 2UD ( Committee Room 5)

OUR COMMUNITY, OUR SCHOOLS

Special meeting in Walthamstow, put on by Our Community, Our Schools on ‘What do we want from our schools? A Charter for Schools’ on Tuesday 21 October 2014

7.30pm, Harmony Hall, Truro Road, Walthamstow

For more details, go to this website.

Gove’s departure – and what might follow

Below, my piece in today’s Guardian Comment page on the sudden demotion of Michael Gove.

One could hear the gasps echoing around the political world yesterday morning. Gove demoted to the whips’ office? Unthinkable.

Or was it? For experienced Gove watchers, there were a few signs in the air. At last month’s Wellington College festival of education, I sat with more than 1,000 people in a marquee waiting for the secretary of state. This was the minister’s natural habitus, an annual jamboree of new-right education reformers sponsored by his old employer the Sunday Times and hosted by a key Gove ally, Anthony Seldon.

But the minister was well over an hour late. And the crowd was getting restless. Gove was apparently stuck in traffic – a poor excuse for a man who is driven everywhere, but an indication perhaps of his less impressive qualities: accident-prone, a touch hapless, careless – even of his most loyal following.

It didn’t help that so many of Gove’s policies were beginning to fray at the edges. Once hailed as the democratic vehicle of parent power, too many free schools have got into a shabby sort of trouble over the last year. The evidence on sponsored academies, the supposed “silver bullet” for school improvement, has also worn thin, thanks largely to the diligent research of my Local Schools Network colleague Henry Stewart. Only this week, it was acknowledged in the high court that results at academies are frequently swollen by vocational equivalents that the minister himself long ago repudiated…

Red the rest of the piece here.…

Why the Goves need a little history lesson

Below, my column in Education Guardian today.

A few weeks ago this newspaper published a piece by Sarah Vine, Daily Mail columnist and wife of the education secretary, Micheal Gove, explaining why they had decided to send their daughter to a London state school.

It was a funny and lively article, and I agreed with just about every word. I was particularly drawn to Vine’s argument about the importance of educating students with very different interests and talents alongside one another, her belief that state schools produce more rounded, socially open citizens and her surprisingly robust criticism of the exclusivity and excessive competition of so much of the private sector.

Yet as time has gone on, Vine’s article has unsettled me. Why? Am I being irrational or ungenerous, unable to welcome even the spouse of an uncompromising Tory frontbencher over to “our” side of the educational divide?

Read the rest of the article here.…

Why there has never been equality in the English school system…..

Here is an edited version of a speech I recently gave on educational equality at the Goldsmiths conference on Teaching and Learning, Future Tense. Graphics are courtesy of my creative and often hilarious colleague, Francis Gilbert.…

School Wars – the road trip.

Over the last eight months, I have been taking the arguments in my book School Wars around the country, talking to parents, teachers, heads in maintained schools: local authority leaders; private, grammar, academy and faith school heads and staff; and many students. I have learned an enormous amount from these discussions about the strengths and divides of our current system and the impact that Coalition policy is having on our schools.

Last week the New Statesman published my edited diary style account of some of these discussions. There is so much I had to miss out…never mind. This gives readers a flavour….…

The schools our children deserve….

Open Democracy has launched an interesting new series on social exclusion, and how to further economic inclusion. I kick the series off with an article on the relationship between economic and educational inequality – and how a different school system might promote great parity between students.…

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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