A few years ago, I gave the speech at the summer prize-giving of a school of which I’m a governor. As part of it, I reprised my own dismal school performance – A-streamed but good at only two subjects, English and Divinity, and never a prizewinner – and I gave a shout-out for all the pupils who that day would not win a prize. “I’m with you,” I told them.
I knew how they felt, this ungarlanded majority, sitting there in a hot church at the end of a school year, clapping their prize-winning friends (and doubtless enemies) for an hour or more until their wrists were limp, wishing for the forthcoming tea and cake and the summer hols spread out beyond.
I knew how it feels not to care that you haven’t won, not to have shaken the hand of a strange school worthy like me and taken a book you won’t read with a plate of the school crest in the fly-leaf. It’s a strange sort of detachment, this middle and low-achieving experience of academic life; there’s no resentment of the winners – in my case at least – just a kind of neutral impatience to get on with life and what you want to do, because you know you’ll be able to do that at least as well as your classmates waiting in row for their walk of pride across the podium.
So I want to ask what’s so great about the meritocracy that Theresa May wants to create in the UK. She wants, as her first declaration of strategic intent in her premiership, to make Britain “the great meritocracy of the world.”
Why? Where is the merit in meritocracy? Why do we cherish the idea that the prizewinners should be privileged among us? More specifically, is it right that that we should isolate a self-serving elite (at the age of 11 in the case of grammar schools) into a rarefied world with all the money, power and private healthcare and in the strongest position to make the same luxurious carousel revolve for their own children?
I ask not out of lefty political envy, but out of a genuine desire to know whether this is the most effective way to run a society. Again, I want to know whether there is merit in meritocracy. I’m not at all sure that there is.
The assumption of virtue in meritocracy seems to rest on the idea that if the brightest and best in academic performance are given the opportunity to prosper then their diligence and brilliance will be of benefit to everyone. And, by the way, they should naturally enjoy all the rewards for this, the cars, the houses in the best postcodes, the best diets and holidays in the sun, a kind of lifetime extension of the prizes at school speech-day.
I just don’t see that there’s irresistible logic in that. That’s partly because I don’t think that being brighter than your friends at 11 years of age should deliver a short-cut to all the comforts and privileges of life. But it’s mainly because I don’t think it works for the rest of us. And there’s quite a lot of us.
Sure, some of the brightest among us are going to discover cures for cancer, produce hilarious sit-coms or start financial technology companies that provide employment and taxes from which all we plodders will benefit. But they could do all that just as effectively – in fact much more effectively, for a reason I’m about to come to – by staying among us rather than being ushered off into a VIP area where they’re served chilled higher education and six-figure salaries as canapes and, here’s the thing, only meet each other.
George Osborne (anyone seen him?) as Chancellor memorably used to tell us that we were “all in this together”. Except we weren’t. Because “decent, hard-working families” had to be separated from indecent, feckless families by tax-breaks. Only right and proper, at any rate in the minds of those who had already been separated by status, education and privilege.
A meritocracy similarly pretends that we’re all in this together, while simultaneously separating the prize-winning wheat from the thicko chaff. The alternative way of looking at it suggests that it really is in the best interests of everyone to all be in this together. The ordinary and less able benefit from the most creative and able being among them and the brightest and best learn how their talents can serve the rest of society rather than just themselves. That seems to me to be a win-win that treats the world as it is, rather than as an elite might pretend it to be.
If that sounds like a manifesto for comprehensive education, then maybe it is. But I don’t think it leads ineluctably to the next charge – that it “holds back” the cleverest pupils. They are going to exercise their talents among their less talented peers, so long as teachers are given the resources to let them, so the most able are still going to win society’s prizes, only less exclusively, in the proper sense of that word.
The one thing they’re being held back from is disappearing into their own little world – and it’s better for them and for the rest of us if they are. The prizewinners should thank us for not sending them away.