In a liberal state that strives for equality, meritocracy, or rather the gaining of something based on merit, rather than other factors, has become a core principle on which we aim to base our society. If we disregard gender, class, race, ethnicity and background from any job or university application, then in theory we should have people in jobs and universities who have been employed on merit alone. However, this is not the case. Meritocracy simply does not work.
There are several arguments associated with the flaws of meritocracy including race and gender, however in this article I will be discussing meritocracy in relation to class and wealth in the UK.
Let us start with education, at the beginning of any determining of merit, at the age of 11. Children have the opportunity to sit the 11+ exam to determine their ability to go to a grammar school which will facilitate a learning environment in which their academic talents will flourish. We see this as the beginning in education. This is a flaw. By the age of 11, a child will have had experiences and opportunities (or lack thereof) which will determine the outcome of a test like the 11+. They might not have parents who read to them at night or take them on cultural visits. They might have been in a primary school with low level disruption, or incompetent teachers, or even teachers without the adequate classroom resources to teach the lessons they wish they could. Their parents might not encourage them to take the 11+, might not know much about it, or they simply might live too far away from a grammar school as many are situated in privileged areas. The list continues. And so, all too frequently, those with privilege get into grammar schools and not just those with natural abilities, passions or talents.
Moving on to schooling. Now of course the disparities between private, grammar and comprehensive education are clear in terms of the opportunities to children. But we must remember that it is not even simply the standard of education received itself which can impair the outcomes of children in education. Equal opportunities does not mean equal outcomes. For example, if you live in an overcrowded home then it might be difficult to complete homework at night. A child might not have the right nutrition to concentrate and learn to the best of their ability. 1/3 children in the UK live in poverty and so both of these factors are real issues that British society must face up to.
And so we come to the point at which the principle of meritocracy, this ever strived for goal, comes into practice. From 16 onwards, people begin to apply to colleges, universities and jobs. In a competitive economy, in theory, the best person for the job should be selected. This will ensure the best outcomes for any organisation, company or academic institute. These privileged groups in society, mainly white, almost always the educated class and often men continue to get the higher positions in organisations and companies or places at the most elite universities. There are of course schemes such as the Sutton Trust which help those from underprivileged backgrounds into top Universities, but many slip through the net. There needs to be a change in mind set, rather than a few gestures to give some, rather than all a chance. We forget that there are many privileges which will have already put certain groups ahead of others in the running. How can meritocracy really be fair, if the merits have been unfairly distributed in the first place?
It could be argued that, unfortunately, because we must compete in a globalised world then we should just continue to choose those people simply because they have had better outcomes. But simply because on a piece of paper an potential candidate looks like they have more merit, it does not mean we should hire them or give them a place at a university.
Research has shown that state school students when studying the same degree at the same institution will often outperform their independent school counterparts by up to seven degree points, perhaps something to do with the fact that state school students often have to overcome many challenges within a somewhat lacking education system and are often left to their independent motivation. Working on the basis of meritocracy in the instance of university clearly does not always give the best outcomes. Yet people from private schools continue to take up a disproportionate amount of places at top universities, with Oxbridge taking almost 50% whereas only 7% of the population go to private schools. Simply because you have a better set of grades on your UCAS form does not necessarily give a true reflection of drive, competency, work ethic, passion, or even intellect. Although universities claim to take other factors into account, especially with those from the most underprivileged backgrounds, places continue to go to the most privileged.
Politics and in particular parliament is one of the most powerful spaces for change, for creating social and public policy that works for the whole population, not just the few at the top. Russell Brand once commented on how the UK political system is essentially created for privately educated students to enter, simply going from one oak panelled hall at their private school, to one at Oxbridge, before ending up in the oak panelled House of Commons. Is it any wonder that almost 1/3 of our MPs and half of the new cabinet are privately educated? Most offered an outstanding education, extra curricular activities such as debating society and MUN, they are in training to be in positions of power from when they first enter school.
We are a country facing countless problems, but many of these problems are faced by particular groups in society which don’t have a real voice. The MPs in parliament are not the people going to food banks, applying for benefits or worrying about being homeless. These are often the people who the principle of meritocracy lets down, rendering them voiceless in parliament. Of course, activism in the forms of social media and the real free press does offer real people a voice, but in terms of legislative and decision making powers, these lie in the hands of those who rarely have experience of the chaotic lives that many in the UK are living right now. Whilst a “working class quota” is not realistically something that could be put into practice, there needs to be a real effort to get people who truly represent working people into parliament, as opposed to those who have had expensive public speaking tuition and a degree in PPE.
In the job market, and in day to day life, people are employed based on their qualifications and experience, as well as how they come across in person; based on merit. But how about we start to think about things a little differently. How good someone will really be in a position really is not necessarily about how they appear on the surface. Dig a little deeper and the person who seems to be less qualified might really have worked harder, had more talent, more drive, but just been dealt a worse card in life. We need to start questioning what we really class as merit, or we are doomed to put the same sorts of people in the same jobs for the rest of eternity…and that would just be boring.