The myth of meritocracy: education in the UK
Illustration: Olivia May

One of the central philosophies underpinning the Conservatives’ narrative of Britain is the claim of meritocracy. That if you just work hard enough; just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then you can achieve anything. It’s the comforting notion that if you play by the rules, you will be rewarded. It also conveniently attributes any exceptions to success as individual failure, rather than perhaps a symptom of systematic (and often very deliberate) inequalities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our education system.

The myth of meritocracy means not only accepting inequality but insisting those at the top deserve to be there through merit alone. The recent A-Level results fiasco came as the very blatant unravelling of this lie, with the subsequent U-turn only thinly plastering over the reality. What’s contemptible about this most recent government farce, is that there’s even no illusion of equality. The Tories have seemingly abandoned the line of meritocracy in the nick of time as the situation became politically untenable.

According to Ofqual’s own figures, private schools received double the A*-A grades than state schools, with downgrades disproportionately affecting disadvantaged areas. For example, pupils in the North West received the lowest rise in top marks at 1.8% compared to a 2.9% rise in London. Before backtracking, Johnson’s comments about the “robust” and “dependable” results appeared more like a half-hearted attempt to give the pretence of confidence in the results, rather than genuine reassurance in the system. And now the jig is up.

Education is perhaps one of the last institutions still seen to be vaguely meritocratic and because of this, is often touted as the best path to social mobility. The idea of a standardised national curriculum and exam system for all students across the country sounds simple, making it too tempting to judge as fair.

The steadily increasing proportion of state school students attending Oxbridge and other Russell Group Universities are often wheeled out as a reassuring sign that things are improving. The figures are getting better, yet are still a long way from a fair and ‘levelled-up’ education system. In 2019, 62.3% of Oxford’s entrants were from state schools. However, considering that only 6.5% of children in the UK attend independent schools, the figures are nonetheless shocking given that almost 40% of their intake are students from this tiny fraction. 

Often, individual success stories are weaponised, doing more to feed the meritocratic narrative than challenge it. Successful students are held up as definitive proof that it’s possible to achieve anything if you work hard. Rather than being recognised as exceptions to a rule, they are used as shining examples to all those still complaining about educational or wider social inequality.

The focus on the elite also functions to ignore other startling evidence of inequality within the education system. Indeed, while the government U-turn to use centre assessed grades for A-Level and GCSE results this year was necessary, it ignores the pattern of teachers under-predicting brighter students from poorer backgrounds compared to their wealthier counterparts. The Education Policy Institute’s 2019 report found disadvantaged pupils are still 18 months behind their peers by the end of secondary school. The report states that “…if current trends continue, we may even be entering a period in which the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their [more advantaged] peers starts to widen, undoing the progress made in recent years.”

In July, Boris Johnson launched his campaign to deliver a yearly increase in pupil funding from 2021, with each secondary school receiving a £5,150 minimum per pupil and £4,000 minimum per pupil for each primary school. Funding allocation to local areas is calculated based on the Department for Education’s National Funding Formula (NFF). However, the EPI report found that the schools that would benefit most are those that “do not have the characteristics associated with additional funding under the NFF… schools without high levels of disadvantaged pupils, that are serving more affluent communities, those without large numbers of pupils with low prior attainment, those without pupils for whom English is not their first language. In short, schools with less challenging intakes.” 

Notably, the report also states that in primary schools where less than 5% of students qualify for free school meals, the average increase in per-pupil funding would stand at £271, while schools with a higher proportion of free school meals students receive less. On average, “a pupil eligible for free school meals would attract an additional £56 under this proposal, while the average pupil not eligible for free school meals would attract an additional £116.” In all, the research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies indicates these plans will still leave schools worse off in 2022-23 than they were in 2010. 

The government approach to ‘level-up’ schools with an injection of (still insufficient) cash ignores more long-term issues in our education system. These include teacher retention in poorer schools and their ever-increasing workload, as well as problems unique to traditionally underfunded areas. With the North East set to receive the lowest additional funding, recent announcements come as a lukewarm consolation following a decade of effective school budget cuts for the first time in a generation. The disparity between the Conservatives’ rhetoric and their actions is stark. In this context, their promise of “levelling up” the country seems not only insulting, but in direct contrast to what has happened—and is continuing to happen— in education. 

“Ironically, the Tories have abandoned the individual in favour of their collective past”

The PM commented in July that “every child deserves a superb education – regardless of which school they attend, or where they happened to grow up”. Yet it was his government that accepted an algorithm that led to success or failure largely dictated by what school students attended and where exactly they happened to grow up. The A-level results debacle was yet another way in which the claim of a meritocratic education system became even more absurd. 

Crucially, it confirmed to students why they should not have faith in the education system. After all, how could there be trust in a system that awarded A to C downgrades with no apparent justification? How can there be faith in a system that intentionally downgraded classes with a lower grade attainment history, thus disproportionately impacting students from disadvantaged schools? 

All it takes is to look at the myriad of white maleness on the GCSE English curriculum or the colonialism-permeating history curriculum to understand exactly what students from disadvantaged or minority communities face indirectly at school every day: the education system is not built for them. It was not made by people like them; does not represent them, and was certainly never made with equality of opportunity in mind. All that this latest government debacle has done is reassert that fact in a painfully stark and uncomfortable— but certainly not new— way. 

This scandal is really about what an education means. It highlights the juxtaposition of the fictional Conservative rhetoric against the reality in schools. With the seemingly arbitrary assignment of grades and blatant classism, the Tories have confirmed what education means in this country: passive absorbing of information, cramming of facts for constant exams and, most importantly, ranking and grading where it is necessary for a certain percentage of people to fail, more often those being pupils in disadvantaged areas.

To educate means to ‘lead out’, to draw out what is already within. It is about questioning what is supposedly certain and attempting to see the world as it really is. Throughout history, education has been used as a tool for liberation, division and silencing. Far from passive, it is powerful. Education is about who gets to control the narrative, who gets to have a voice and who does not. What the Eton- to- Oxford-educated Johnson and the government did is not just perpetuate that notion, but put it into an algorithm and claimed that it was fair.

The fallacy of meritocracy derives its power from its focus on the individual. It stunts the debate to personal morality and conveniently ignores the systematic inequalities at play. After all, it is easier to blame an individual and save the privileged from the awkward confrontation that their success may not be down solely to their talents alone. The algorithm programmed to calculate grades based primarily on the collective history of a school has condemned people to their background and social status. Ironically, the Tories have abandoned the individual in favour of their collective past.  They have given up on meritocracy.

Despite the U-turn, this year’s results day fiasco confirmed who the system and this government is for, whatever their rhetoric may be. The only hope now is that young people will refuse to accept it. At moments like this, when long-standing issues feel more acute and urgent than ever, and power seems most fragile, change is perhaps most within reach.