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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: Gove

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.…

‘Any chance of some proposals fit for the 21st century?’

Below – a post I have written on the Local Schools Network today on the implications of Gove’s new O-level style proposals:

What with the GCSE regrading fiasco and the row over the selling off of state school sports fields, Michael Gove clearly needed a quick political fix – and some positive publicity – this autumn. And he has got it – if from all the wrong people.

Meanwhile, the nation’s hard-working pupils – many of them now embarking on GCSE courses that the government has more or less officially rubbished – deserve far more than these ill-thought-through changes, and yet more upheaval, in the form of the new O-level proposals, which will officially be known as “the English Baccalaureate Certificate”.

As the incisive head teacher and blogger Geoff Barton asked last night, ” Why would we want to call an English qualification a baccalaureate, especially when it shares so few features with the principles and ideals of the international baccalaureate?’

It is hard not to see this reform as Gove and the hapless Lib Dems playing politics with our schools system. Tabloid headlines have predictably enough hailed an end to “dumbing down” and a “return to rigour”. But what has been pushed as a bold new reform is neither new nor particularly bold. An exam at 16 that all can take, distinguishing the so-called academic and not-so academic in its gradation of difficulty, and its marking scheme? In many ways, that sounds pretty similar to our current GCSEs – although details emerging about the practical implications of the new qualification suggest that a significant number of children will never take it, or take it later than their peers. How can anyone consider a reform that could lead to the potential failure of up to 40% of children ( according to some estimates) progress, let alone progressive?

Very few commentators have yet raised the important question of the revised secondary curriculum that will inevitably underpin the new exams. Gove has always made clear his preference for a more traditionalist, linear curriculum but judging from the disastrous progress of the revised primary curriculum, still incomplete, he may face an even bigger problem with prescriptive new ideas for secondary schools ( none of which will apply to the mushrooming number of academies and free schools.)

Don’t forget: two of the members of the expert panel, on the primary curriculum, resigned from their posts last autumn, and one senior academic Andrew Pollard, spoke out publicly against the “prescriptive” nature of the proposals, which risked generating a sense of “widespread failure” among the nation’s primary schoolchildren.…

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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