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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: Waiting for Superman

Why are we following the US into a schools policy disaster?

It is amazing how quickly you can discourage a nation. Just 18 months ago, Michael Gove kicked off his controversial tenure at the Department for Education with apparently definitive claims, backed by international test evidence, of UK state school failure and the need for a radical new approach.

Last year, Sweden was the model for reform. The government barely mentions Sweden these days, not since it emerged that its free schools produce marginally improved results, but increased social segregation. Now the emphasis has shifted to America, another mediocre international performer, yet already proving a dangerous template for aggressive fast-paced reform over here.

Most people have heard of the American charter schools, which currently educate over one and a half million children, but few understand the conditions under which their highly partial success occurs or what their impact is. Nor do they grasp what their equivalents here in England — academies and free schools — could mean for our education system in the long term.

The model goes something like this: a set of new schools, apparently dedicated to radically improved education of the poor, is set up in competition to existing public provision. Heavily backed by corporate or philanthropic interests, with some working on a “for profit” basis, they are reliant on high-stakes results, strict discipline, a punitive approach to teachers and unions, and tend to have more control over their admissions, higher rates of exclusion, and to take fewer students with special needs or those for whom English is not their first language.

Meanwhile, public (state) schools, many suffering toxic spending cuts, drowning in often unjustified public and political criticism, must continue to educate anyone who comes through their gates, making the alternative new model look shinier still. Yet many still provide an outstanding education, particularly in deprived areas. Sound familiar?

One of the most high-profile critics of charter schools is Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of state for education under George W Bush, who is now fighting against the role of choice, high-stakes testing and the dominance of massive corporations in US education, all of which, she believes, are damaging to the concept of universal quality public education.

It was interesting to watch the softly spoken Ravitch in debate recently with Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic chief executive of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the most high-profile charter network, eulogised in the 2010 pro-charter documentary Waiting For Superman.

HCZ offers a stern, test-driven education to a select few.…

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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