Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Is Britain a meritocracy?

Britain is a nation in which desire and talent are simply not enough to get ahead

As the most severe cuts to public services in living memory begin to bite it is worth considering the wider impact that these may have.  As a rule these cuts will hit the least advantaged members of society hardest and this raises a crucial question about how meritocratic Britain really is.  Despite the cuts does Britain offer equality of opportunity to all and does everyone in Britain have an equal chance of success?

Simply, a meritocracy is a society in which achievement and reward is based on merit – hard work, skills, drive – rather than privilege.  A meritocratic society is desirable as it is fair and does not lead to those born into privilege achieving more than an equally talented individual born into poverty and deprivation.  A true meritocracy provides equality of opportunity, an individual’s chances of success are not predetermined at birth.  

A recent article by John Harris in the Guardian noted that the growing trend of the privately educated ‘taking over’ popular culture.  It makes interesting reading as did the BBC documentary ‘getting on’, which focussed on the cycle of achievement of those that were privately educated getting the best degrees, then the best jobs and ultimately sending their children to private school, thus continuing the cycle.

What’s illuminating is the response of Dominic West (from The Wire) who responded to a question regarding his private school background by noting that it no longer mattered as we now live in a meritocracy.  This comment inferred that no advantage had been gained by his private education and that anyone else in Britain had the opportunity to rise to his place of success.

 A cursory glance around Britain today would reveal this to be patently not the case.  Private education offers untold benefits in terms of contacts, reputation and knowledge (such as university admissions procedures) and those that attend it are likely to be more successful than an equally talented individual that attends a struggling state school.

From the cabinet, to the judiciary, to the civil service, the BBC, Fleet Street, be it leading universities or the UK pop charts; a clear and self evident pattern emerges.  There is a distinct absence or under representation of ethnic minorities and those from the poorest backgrounds, yet a significant over representation of Oxbridge graduates and those that attended private school.  If Britain were a meritocratic society this may occur in some sectors and industries; that it occurs in all of those where power and wealth are concentrated is damning. 

 In theory a truly meritocratic society would reflect the society of which it is comprised.  Only 7% of the British population attends private education, approximately 15% of the population are of an ethnic background other than ‘white British’.  In a society in which social class and background present no disadvantage and success in life is a result of ability alone, it would be natural to expect that these trends reflected across society.   

The issue is fairness; no child chooses to be born into poverty or attend poor performing schools.  No amount of desire to succeed can overcome obstacles such as a culture of anti-intellectualism, being given little or no advice on how to access the best universities or being unable to take up an internship as your parents are unable to assist with your living costs.  

No child chooses their parents yet research indicates that a parent’s educational experience and level of affluence are the leading factors in shaping their own children’s experience.  That the likes of Alan Sugar et al have risen from modest or challenging backgrounds to become very successful is clear evidence of a lack of social mobility, not evidence of its presence; their success only serves to emphasise that many, many, thousands have been unable to achieve this. 

Equality of opportunity barely stretches to include both genders, even before different ethnicities and social classes are considered.  The problem is a fundamental challenge within society.  If Britain is not a meritocracy, how far is it from achieving this?  More pertinently, how can equality of opportunity be increased?  

The answer is a long way; it may be comforting to tell ourselves that inherited privilege is not a deciding factor in our chances of success, but that would be disingenuous.  

One approach could be to ban the provision of private education thus removing the cycle of advantage and privilege that they propagate.  However parents with the financial ability and knowledge could simply move house into the catchment area of a successful state school.  Tackling poverty would perhaps be the answer, but thirteen years of New Labour and their ostensible commitment to improving social mobility and reducing child poverty has had little or no impact.  Universities have also been targeted; a lack of Black undergraduates was used to illustrate potential bias in the admission process; the University of Oxford simply pointed out that if black students aren’t achieving the entry grades required there is little they can do.

Tackling this issue is unlikely to be achieved by instigating a series of disconnected (though well intentioned) schemes and initiatives, such as the Pupil Premium and national scholarship fund for university.  However if the solution requires a more holistic and radical approach what can be done?  A huge part of the problem is attitudes and beliefs, inherited privilege is still accepted as normal and concepts of class still shape attitudes, beliefs and prejudices.

A greater redistribution of wealth could perhaps prevent poverty blighting the chances of young people before they have even set foot in school, but the 50% tax rate for higher earners is still seen as controversial and ‘anti-aspirational’.  

That this more progressive tax is so hard to sell to the electorate, yet the rise in tuition fees and the axing of the Educational Maintenance Allowance so easy, must lead to the conclusion that there is sadly, no real appetite for meaningful change.

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