Category Archives: Meritocracy

Social Mobility? Forget It…


The Government wants to unlock talent and fulfil potential with its plan to improve social mobility through education. It intends to do this by: targeting communities that are left behind, closing the ‘word-gap’ in early years, closing the attainment gap in schools between disadvantaged and more affluent children, providing high quality post 16 skills education and access to the best universities, working with businesses to support adult retraining and ‘upskilling’,  building partnerships and identifying and spreading ‘what works’ throughout the system.

Most of this seems to make sense except for one glaring problem – it is extraordinarily difficult, maybe impossible, to improve social mobility through education.

Gregory Clark, Professor of Economics at the University of California points out:

How do we know we cannot change the rate of social mobility? One piece of evidence is what happened to social mobility rates as England moved from the pre-industrial world of squire and servant, to the modern noisy meritocracy of the rude boys of finance. What happened as the political franchise was extended in the early 19th century? What happened as mass public education was introduced later in the century? What happened as education, healthcare and pensions for the poor were financed by taxation of the incomes of the wealthier? The answer is that social mobility remained at its slow pre-industrial pace.

There was a point post second world war when social mobility was on the increase however this was not due to education but due to the changing jobs market:

In 1951, 55% of the male workforce was working class and 11% were in professional and managerial occupations. By 2011, 30% are working class and 40% in the higher classes. The huge level of upward mobility, then, largely reflects that there was ‘more room at the top’ – there were simply more jobs to be upwardly mobile into. 

Despite this, in the long term, there has been very little difference to overall social mobility figures. That there is some evidence of downward mobility now may have resulted in anxious parents worrying about their children’s prospects and governments seeking to respond with solutions focusing on social mobility through education. As Dr. Lindsey Roberts writes here, in a piece for the British Academy:

Education is often held up as the solution to the mobility problem. The idea is that individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds can do well at school and university and work their way into higher class positions by a process of “meritocracy”. Superficially this might sound like a good idea, but it is one that doesn’t hold up well in practice. Availability of graduate jobs (if such a concept still exists) has not kept pace with the increasing supply of university-educated young people entering the labour market, and in relative terms the value of getting a degree may be declining. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that the: proportion of graduates working in low-skill jobs has increased, from 5.3% in 2008 to 8.1% in 2016. Just ‘being’ a graduate does not automatically mean you will have a well-paid job and if there are to be more graduates this could increase, supply and demand might mean graduates being less rare command lower wages, the jobs market might not be so enamoured by graduates if nearly everyone is one.

The jobs market is changing, more people are in work but wages are stagnant or falling. Productivity per person is relatively low and a number of people report feeling underproductive. More are ‘self employed’, numbers have increased by 50% since the turn of the century, though the nature of self employment is also changing in these ‘uberfication’ days.

The ‘type’ of graduate also effects social mobility, STEM degrees might command better jobs and wages though whether this is due to supply and demand is a moot point. If there were more people with these degrees would social mobility improve?

The Sutton Trust report that:

Despite a large (38%) and increasing proportion of the UK workforce holding a higher education qualification, university graduates still enjoy a large earnings advantage over non- graduates (estimated by previous studies as 28% for men and 53% for women)…

The results show that there are large variations in outcomes for graduates depending on their university and degree subject.

Graduates from Oxford and Cambridge enjoy starting salaries approximately £7,600 (42%) higher per year, on average, than graduates from post-1992 universities. They also earn starting salaries approximately £3,300 higher than graduates from other highly selective Sutton Trust 13 universities.

Differences by subject are even more substantial, with graduates from medicine and dentistry courses (the highest earning subject) earning starting salaries approximately £12,200 higher than those studying design and creative arts (the lowest earning subjects). Engineering and technology (the second highest earning subject) graduates earn on average £8,800 higher than design and creative arts graduates.

If every graduate was studying medicine would there be the jobs for them to go to?  If we want social mobility to increase then we need ‘more room at the top’ – more jobs [and courses] to be upwardly mobile into. If we want to prove we have a socially mobile society we would need to ensure that a substantial part of the increase in courses and jobs was taken up by the children of the poor. No point in having this extra capacity and filling it up with rich kids.

If nothing is done about advantaged children going to Oxford and more of the poor end up going to Oxford and there is no increase in places, parents who are ‘just about managing’, who don’t count as ‘poor’, those who don’t qualify for free school meals, the lower middle classes, might complain that their children can’t get to Oxford as easily as the children who went to private schools and the children of the poor. If social mobility is about leaving the middle where they are, this is not about creating a meritocratic system, it is one where statistics will merely be bandied about. Social mobility has to include the unpalatable idea of downward mobility especially for richer families, if we are to justify our mobility figures by getting more poor children than before to succeed rather than more rich ones. With private school pupils two and half times more likely to join one of the leading universities than state-educated ones and the upper echelons of the jobs market dominated by students from private school backgrounds something would have to give. Abolishing public schools might make a bit of a difference but the influence of affluence would then be felt in different ways.

Degrees make a difference, (though the fact that the number of graduates in low skilled jobs is increasing, might be of concern).Barnardos suggest that there are 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK, over a quarter of all children. 1.7 million of these children are living in severe poverty. What are the chances of social mobility through education? According to Barnardos: 34% of children entitled to free school meals achieve 5 GCSEs at C or above, including English and Maths, this compares to 61% of pupils who are not eligible for free school meals. How to make a big dent on Oxford admissions from this group?

About 1% of school leavers at 18 go to Oxbridge, and around 8% go to Russell Group Universities. For argument’s sake, if we think of the 3.7 million ‘poor’ children spread out evenly over 18 years that would make 205,556 poor children per ‘cohort’. In 2016 there were 11,728 Undergraduates, studying at Oxford University.  If we were to double poor children attending Oxford there would be hardly a dent on mobility. The same with Russell Group entry. What is Oxford doing to target the poor? According to this publication, Increasing Access to Oxbridge; An exploration of obstacles for under-represented groups and efforts to overcome them:

The University is… targeting candidates from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, measured by their ACORN (A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods) postcode, focusing on ACORN postcodes 4 (‘moderate means’) and 5 (‘hard pressed’), the least advantaged areas of the UK. The target is to increase the proportion of candidates from these areas to 9% by 2016-17. The total number of UK applicants matched with ACORN data in 2014 entry was 2,579; 241 students were accepted from ACORN postcodes putting the acceptance rate at 9.3%. The final low participation target category is POLAR 2 (Participation of Local Areas) which looks at the participation of young people in higher education for different geographical areas of the UK, and shows how the chances of young people entering higher education varies depending on where they live. Oxford is focusing on quintiles 1 and 2, which have the lowest participation rates in higher education. In 2014, the total number of accepted UK applicants who matched with POLAR 2 postcode data was 2,560, with 264 students accepted from POLAR 2 quintile 1 and 2 postcodes, putting the percentage of accepted students at 10.3%; the target is to increase this to 13% by 2016-17.

Of course a rich family is free to live in a ‘disadvantaged’ postcode neighbourhood but, casting that aside, these numbers will not make a huge impact on overall social mobility. To make some sort of impact we would have to make much more effort to get substantially more students into ‘top’ universities. By making Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities treble in size and have to take on the increase in numbers entirely from those from a poorer background might make a bit of a difference. Oxford would could have, say, 35,000 graduates –  with 24,000 from poorer backgrounds. Yet still the vast majority of children from poor backgrounds wouldn’t get into Oxford. Oxford would have changed radically. It would need more buildings, more staff, change its admissions criteria, as would all the other universities, if this was to make any impact in the name of ‘mobility’.

Dr. Lindsey Roberts states:

While it is true that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have good chances of getting the higher class jobs if they get good qualifications, such a group remains small in number and is more than offset by advantaged individuals without good qualifications but who are somehow enabled by their backgrounds to do well…

The Sutton Trust reports:

…students from the most highly advantaged backgrounds [are] those who attended private secondary schools. Graduating from the same university, from the same subject, with the same degree classification, students from private school backgrounds tended to have somewhat higher earnings and a greater probability of going on to a professional level job than did their state school counterparts. In terms of starting salary, this difference was around £1,350 per year on average.

Therefore, regardless of qualifications, in order to create more room at the top we would have to legislate in order to counteract the inbuilt advantage children with highly affluent backgrounds seem to get. Maybe we could make sure that the increasing number of low skill jobs that are now being done by graduates are entirely taken up by those from advantaged backgrounds. Inheritance tax could be increased too, maybe to 100%? And, perhaps, rich people should only be allowed no more than three books in their homes in order to ‘de-literate’ their offspring.

Can the Government really make the argument that education is a route to social mobility? The current figures do not justify that belief and in order to make a radical dent in the figures of social mobility the government would have to make far more radical proposals than they are suggesting and these changes would have to go far beyond the narrow remit of education.

Education cannot create social mobility on its own. More room at the top and more pay at the bottom might help but even then will we accept a ‘fair’ meritocratic society where those at the top can be deemed to be successful and those at the bottom can be deemed to have failed? Much better to be at the bottom of society due to unfairness than to be there because you ‘deserve it’. In the meantime what should schools do? I’d suggest they should forget social mobility and, instead, concentrate on ‘cultural mobility’ a term I will explore further in a future blogpost.



For Theresa May: On Grammar Schools and Private Education


I offer the following as a ‘what if?’ A little train of thought to add to the grammar schools debate currently raging through the veins of the educational world. I offer it to Theresa May as I think it solves many of her problems with the policy as currently envisaged, however it also opens up a whole lot of new ones…

Our most famous schools have been around for centuries, some are fictional like Hogwarts others exist in collective folklore like Rugby with William Webb Ellis and Tom Brown. Whether you like them or not the famous independent schools and not so famous ones have a culture that is recognisable throughout the world.

Our Independent schools, also famously, seem to provide a vast number of recruits to the ‘top jobs’ in the UK. Whilst educating a meagre 7% of the population these schools provide 71% of the top military officers, 74% of high court judges, 51% of ‘print’ journalists, 32% of MPs, 61% of ‘top’ doctors, the list goes on… as the chair of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl puts it:

Our research shows that your chances of reaching the top in so many areas of British life are very much greater if you went to an independent school… The key to improving social mobility at the top is to open up independent schools to all pupils based on merit not money … as well as support for highly able students in state schools.

For Theresa May looking at setting up more grammar schools this might offer an interesting quandary, if we are to take her at her word that she wants the UK to be “the great meritocracy of the world,” does she intend to ignore the great bastions of paid for privilege that the Independent sector undoubtedly is?  Over the past 25 years fees in this sector have increased by 553% meaning that those who once felt able to pay for this type of education have effectively been priced out. Therefore those who attend these schools are more likely to be ultra privileged than those in the past and an increasing number are from abroad, including the sons and daughters of Chinese and Russian oligarchs. Is this tolerable in May’s great meritocracy of the world?

At the 1953 Labour Conference Hugh Gaitskell pointed out that having 4 to 5% of Independent School places free would bring scant rewards, instead he proposed 50% of the places should be free; maybe this is something Theresa could consider, in fact she could go one step further and instead of imposing grammar schools onto the public sector, she could in one fell swoop prove that she means it when she states that the UK should be the world’s great meritocracy by turning our private Independent schools into her beloved state grammar schools.

This extremely radical move would be a highly interesting one for it would succeed in addressing a central point of her speech on grammar schools that the country wants change. And her Government is going to deliver it:

Everything we do will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few. Not by those with the loudest voices, the special interests, the greatest wealth or the access to influence. This Government’s priorities are those of ordinary, working class people…  

above all they want to believe that if they uphold their end of the deal – they do the right thing, they work hard, they pay their taxes – then tomorrow will be better than today and their children will have a fair chance in life, the chance to go as far as their talents will take them…  

I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it is your talent and hard work that matter not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.

Let us not underestimate what it will take to create that great meritocracy. It means taking on some big challenges, tackling some vested interests. Overcoming barriers that have been constructed over many years… there is no more important place to start than education… at the moment the school system works if you’re well off and can buy your way into the school you want, and it provides extra help and support if you’re from a disadvantaged family… I want to encourage more people, schools and institutions with something to offer to come forward and help… 

I want to encourage some of our biggest independent schools to bring their knowledge, expertise and resources to bear to help improve the quality and capacity of schools for those who cannot afford to pay.

This is entirely in keeping with the ethos that lies at the heart of many of these institutions. Most of the major public schools started out as the route by which poor boys could reach the professions. The nature of their intake may have changed today – indeed these schools have become more and more divorced from normal life. 

These are great schools with a lot to offer and I certainly don’t believe you solve the divide between the rich and the rest by abolishing or demolishing them. You do it by extending their reach and asking them to do more as a condition of their privileged position to help all children.  

If working class children find themselves, on merit, being educated in our ‘top’ schools instead of the wealthy then that would be a sign that Theresa May was being serious. If ‘extending the reach’ of the Independent sector meant that they stop just educating people of wealth with a small number of bursaries and assisted places for poorer children, she could go the full Gaitskell and ask that they educate the children of ‘ordinary working parents’ by merit through opening up 50% of their places or she could go the whole hog and do a double Gaitskell and in one fell swoop abolish fee paying in the independent sector and bring them fully into the state sector as Independent Grammar Schools with the full rights for self governance that academies currently have.

This would mean that Theresa can have her cake and eat it, it would show that she is  serious about creating a meritocracy in which: “advantage is based on merit not privilege,” whilst at the same time disarming many of those who are arguing against her green paper. How many on the left would need to pause to contemplate the ramifications of such a policy before they argued against her abolishing private education?

Now, I don’t pretend that there are no problems with this scenario, for a start many involved in the independent sector might object but if the Government promised to pay the same for each child that these schools currently receive it might go some way to alleviate these concerns, though I have no idea how much it would impact on the Government’s coffers. There is talk that some private schools would welcome the possibility of becoming a state grammar school but there would be an ideological problem if all schools had to operate under the auspices of the State. Other objections might be along the lines of those that currently bedevil this debate, how would the children be selected, is there such a thing as a ‘tutor-proof test’, should we have a segregated education system at all? None of my proposals here address these very real concerns and objections, though neither would keeping things as they are.


On Independent School Education for Pupil Premium Children



In this morning’s Daily Telegraph Shaun Fenton the headmaster of Reigate Grammar School writes that:

We should increase social mobility by using state funding to open access to independent schools. Independent schools should be challenged to educate even more disadvantaged young people… My proposition is that the partial state funding should be for those who qualify for the Pupil Premium.

Fenton points out that this could only ever be a small part of the educational jigsaw, I wonder if his idea could make a difference to educational disadvantage and/or social mobility? He thinks these schools will need to expand to take an increase in numbers and it is this that makes the argument interesting.

Are our ‘great’ independent schools scaleable? Have they got the staff and indeed the facilities to accept, say, twice as many pupils? Many have the grounds in which they could build… Do they have the funds necessary to subsidise what, comparatively little, money they would get from the state?

Would it increase social mobility? If it did, what does that say about our education system? Is it the quality of education or more about ‘the old school tie’? Clearly it would be something that could annoy some of the middle classes, priced out of private schools by ever higher fees, and not poor enough to qualify for these new places. Would they not also be annoyed to see the establishment to be still drawn from the same schools but involving just the super rich and the poor?

Is it the quality of school that makes the difference to social mobility or is it down to the social capital of the parents and their networks that makes the most difference? In other words are these schools truly great or are they the beneficiaries of truly ‘great’ dynastic intakes that know how the establishment works and ensure it replicates itself? Would the ‘poorer intake’ in great numbers become socially mobile or would they lack the contacts necessary to make this a possibility?

Would the pupil premium intake be chosen via academic selection? If so, who would ensure they had the pre-education to pass the common entrance exam etc?

And finally…

What would happen to one of these schools if it expanded exponentially to include a majority of pupil premium kids, say 75%, would the school be the same? Would well-to-do parents want their darling offspring to mix with the hoi-poloi especially those who have chosen the independent sector deliberately to ensure that their kids don’t mix with the poor and certainly not in such large numbers?


What Then?


When all kids have grit, what then?

When every school is outstanding, what then?

When every target is reached or surpassed, what then?

When everyone’s mindset is switched to growth, what then?

When all is meritocratic and we all get to where we ought to be, what then?

When every twenty-first century skill has been adopted and learnt, what then?

When every child attends the college of their dreams, when every child is fluent in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, what then?

When all children are creative, empathetic, can move from job to job with ease, what then?

When every school leaver is able to commune happily with artificially intelligent machines due to the new jobs that have yet to be thought of that they can now be employed in the exciting never thought of industries of the future… What then?

When the tense is future-perfect, what then?

Gentlemen, there are questions that worry me; solve them for me. You for example want human beings to give up their old habits and adjust their will so that it accords with the requirements of science and common sense. But how do you know that human beings not only can but must be transformed in this way?*

Isn’t the way of things that mankind is drawn to destroying the very things that might, in all sense, be to our advantage? Even in the life of one person don’t we sometimes do the very things we know do us no good whatsoever? Eat that extra bit of cake, drink a couple of glasses too many, wake up in the wrong bed on the wrong side of town…?

How many people will it take to make the system perfect? Won’t we get bored in this utopia, that we stick pins in our eyes, or the eyes of others?

If a system is doomed to fail is it just a vain hope? Has our vision of the future written out the awkward, rebellious, self destructive anti-heroes or zeroes that so many find themselves to be? Oh we are such disappointments us human-beings. We are our own nemesis. Give me a target and I might deliberately miss it and even I won’t know why.

In the meritocracy will schools be there for the inhabitants of the de-meritocracy?


*Dostoevsky: Notes From Underground (which is the inspiration for this piece)


Schools and the Mindless Mindset Meritocracy

SDante In Schools Week Carol Dweck writes: “If I were the Secretary of State for Education, I would make schools places of growth. I would… give back to students and teachers that zest for learning — the desire for challenges, passion for hard work, embracing of mistakes, and joy in improvement. If some schools can do it, all schools can do it.” Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset is something I buy into but there is a niggling doubt in the back of my mind…

“If some schools can do it, all schools can do it…”

In their book G is for Genes Plomin and Asbury point out that: “We think it is likely that, for genetic as well as environmental reasons, it will be harder for some people to develop a growth mindset than others.” All in our world is not equal, is it not disheartening to think that Mindset might not be an easy fix for all your pupils?

Mindset attracts schools because in a kingdom of the blind the one eyed man would be king. We think: ‘ah our kids can get higher grades if they have a growth mindset; our kids can be ‘kings’ and our school lauded as ‘kingmaker’! But in a kingdom of growth mindset ‘where all school’s do it’ all the iniquities and inequalities remain. If I was to practise as much as Usain Bolt I doubt I would ever be as fast as him, even with the same coaching I would not be his equal. (I think Usain has a fixed mindset, he strikes me as someone who is quite content with being the fastest in the world, quite content with being praised for his speed, I’m sure that his gold medals sustain this impression.) Cyclist Lance Armstrong ‘suggested that doping had been so widespread in the sport a decade ago that only those involved could hope to contend’ in the Tour de France. If we educate all to have a growth mindset what advantage could there possibly be?

Mindset is accompanied by meritocracy, driven by a Governmental desire to compete in PISA tables, our kids have to compete. The impression given is those with a growth mindset get the best results in exams, get the best jobs, get the most money, have the happiest lives and the most ornate funerals. Michael Young, wrote that: “If meritocrats believe… that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get… They can be insufferably smug… The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.” Can you imagine a world where those at the top have got there because of their mindset and that is all…? At least with our current system we know it’s unfair and we have cause for anger. Meritocratic man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, and the poor would have nothing to blame but their mindsets: let them eat cake from their self imposed fixed mindset food-banks; our ‘failures’ are but a quintessence of dust.

On Dweck’s Mindset Website it says: ‘Do people with [the growth] mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable), that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.’

To Be or Not To Be the Human Becoming?

Toil! Under the tyranny of targets and outcomes and grit and resilience some of us dread every morning as we set up upon our daily trial of Sisyphus, rolling that effing rock up that effing hill. What about a day of idling, lolling and wasting time? Are these now sins in this work-ethic-growth-mindset driven age? Why this focus on the desperate struggle, why not, sometimes, be content just to be content? Education can be a passing fancy in which things awake our interest and give us pause, where learning is for its own ends and not part of an international Tour de Force. Rather than demand we have to become super brain fit for the great competition of life we can be the human forever becoming and be relaxed with that knowledge rather than need to beat everyone at all cost. Lance Armstrong said: “I just took part in the system…” let’s ensure that we don’t over systematise Mindset. images-7 Who are you trying to kid Einstein? You were smart and you stayed with problems for a long time! But there your picture is, accompanied by others all over the walls of our schools: hey kids, work hard and you too can be Einstein! Really??? Do we expect Growth Mindset to solve all our ills? Instead of covering our school walls with ‘mindset’ quotes and pictures of great men and women, let’s just look at the whole picture, literally… quotes and pictures from everyone: let’s look at life in all its shades. Pictures of street cleaners, bus drivers, house-husbands, the unemployed accompanied by their quotes; let’s celebrate their lives! Let us turn outwards and towards each other as fallible human beings sharing more in common than not and celebrate:

What a piece of work is a human! How noble in reason and how infinite in faculty! Schools are not just for the aspirant über-successful, they are for all, even those who are less smart and those without a ‘passion for hard work’.