Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Digested Read

The Illusion of Meritocracy Damages Young People – and Sanctions Inequality

Diane Reay



| 7 mins read

The illusion of meritocracy at school inflicts damage on children and young people – particularly those from working class backgrounds. More than that, meritocracy creates more inequality in British society.

The everyday practices of testing, hyper‐competition and setting in schools, plus the designation of predominantly working class schools as ‘rubbish schools for rubbish learners’, exacerbate social divisions and encourage the growth of distrust, prejudice, envy, resentment, and contempt between different social groups.

Background to meritocracy

When Michael Young coined the term meritocracy in his 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, he introduced into popular understanding an ideal long cherished in British society: ‘may the best person win’.

A meritocratic system is a competition in which there are clear winners and losers, but in which the resulting inequalities are justified on the basis that participants have an equal opportunity to prove themselves. Citizens, particularly in the UK, are convinced that poverty and wealth are the outcomes of a fair meritocratic process.

Meritocracy has become a key weapon in neoliberalism’s armoury. The British, in particular, subscribe to the fantasy of upper and middle class privilege as a meritocratic achievement rather than an inherited asset. This is despite the UK having one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world.

Meritocracy and the educational system

Children at private schools have 300 per cent more spent on their education than children in state schools. Yet the British were more likely to think they lived in a meritocratic society than those in many comparable countries such as France, Spain and Germany, even though these countries were more socially mobile in practice.

Britain is becoming the aspiration nation. Now every child has to ‘aim for the stars’. It is no longer acceptable to want to work in a shop or be a building labourer. But aspirations need infrastructure in order to be realised if you lack the power, wealth, and resources of the middle and upper classes. And increasingly, that infrastructure is not there.

The educational system in the UK is primarily reproductive, reinforcing the status quo. Meritocracy is the flimsy sticking plaster. But schools alone cannot solve the problems of poverty and equal opportunities, nor should they be expected to.

The loneliness of social mobility

Having lived a ‘rags to riches’ trajectory from free school meal child growing up on a sink council estate to Cambridge professor, I know what a callous and complacent fiction meritocracy is. It positions the still working classes as too stupid and idle to make the requisite move towards becoming a better person.

The working classes have become the outcasts in the UK aspiration dream story. They are only classified as of value if they adopt middle class dispositions of neoliberal competitive individualism.

Social mobility is a lonely individualised process; inevitably, you can only go up the ladder alone. As such, it works against solidarity, frequently estranging socially mobile individuals from the communities they have left.

The consequences of meritocratic ideology for the working classes

Tests are neither objective nor accurate and contribute to the very inequality they are purporting to measure. My ethnographic research in schools over a twenty‐five year period demonstrates this.

For many of the working class school children I interviewed, a ‘rubbish’ learner was only fit to go to ‘rubbish’ schools; and test results were conflated with far‐reaching consequences and life prospects. Test results went to the very heart of who they were, and what they could become.

The processes of segregation that the ideology of meritocracy endorses and legitimates increasing social distance, mistrust and ignorance of those who are different to oneself – and in relation to the working classes, sanctioning prejudice towards them from more privileged social groups. As a further harmful consequence, I found that white, middle class children would be dismissive of predominantly working class schools and the children who attend them.

The consequences are particularly vivid in the accounts of primary school‐aged children talking about the ability sets to which they have been allocated. This is a six year‐old in a London primary school told me: “They [the lions] think they are better than us. … my group are monkeys and we are only second to bottom.”

As well as creating hierarchies of worth among children, meritocratic practices such as setting also lead to the children in the lower sets internalising a sense that they have little or no educational value.

Academy schools: the epitome of meritocracy

One of the most chilling educational research experiences I have had was when I visited an academy in the South East of England in 2016. When the teacher and I walked into the year eight classroom, all the children stood rigidly to attention, raised their arms and chanted the mantra ‘I aspire, they aspire, we all aspire’.

These young people are being indoctrinated into the belief that they can transform their own lives if they are self‐disciplined enough and strive long hours every day. Just look at the names of many multi‐academy trusts – Aspire Academy Trust, the Aspirations Academy Trust, and the Flying High Academy Trust.

Despite this, a majority of working class young people in academies still end up as educational losers, with a strong sense that they only have themselves to blame.

A fairer society

Working class children routinely experience a narrower curriculum, more teaching to the test, are afforded fewer resources, less experienced teachers, and have more temporary teachers than their more affluent peers.

This exacerbates social divisions in Britain and encourages the growth of distrust, prejudice, envy and contempt between different social groups. These divisions were dramatically brought to light in the recent Brexit vote.

In post‐Brexit Britain we will need, more than ever, to develop a society in which all citizens have an equal opportunity to develop their own special capacities for leading a rich life. A fair society would be founded on plural values, seeing worth far beyond the narrow conception of merit as ability plus effort.

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  • Diane Reay

    Diane Reay

    Professor Diane Reay is based at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

    Articles by Diane Reay