Conservatives, Grammar Schools and the ‘Great Meritocracy’

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David Civil

In his first budget since becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond outlined plans to spend £500 million on new school buildings, with a significant portion going towards the creation of grammar schools. Social commentators and journalists have exposed the Conservative Party’s faith in selective education to considerable scrutiny. What has been left relatively unexplored, however, is what the return of grammar schools tells us about the role of meritocracy in Conservative Party ideology.

Apart from Brexit, the concept of meritocracy has come to define Theresa May’s early premiership. At her first Conference speech as Prime Minister in October 2016 May outlined her plans to transform Britain into a ‘Great Meritocracy’.

She turned to the concept in the belief that it could remedy post-Referendum social divisions and to distinguish her government from the ‘boys-club image’ associated with David Cameron and George Osborne.

Conservatives should be interested in social stability through the preservation of only those inequalities which are deemed legitimate and fair. With the advent of Brexit and the rise of Trump, a variety of politicians across the Western World have come to recognise that inequalities emerging from market outcomes are no longer deemed socially acceptable. Those ‘left-behind’ by globalisation, it is argued, are turning against the established elite.

For Theresa May, meritocracy offers a potential solution. With its emphasis on intelligence and effort it seems to offer the chance to restore fairness to social hierarchies. In embracing meritocracy, however, May is simply following the well-trodden path of her predecessors.

The desire to create a meritocratic social hierarchy seems to be a prerequisite for political office in modern Britain: Tony Blair, in a speech to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference shortly after taking office in October 1997 proclaimed, ‘the Britain of the elite is over. The new Britain is a meritocracy’. David Cameron, during his campaign to become Conservative Party leader argued that his Party needed ‘a new identity’ and went on to claim that he was a ‘believer in meritocracy and opportunity on merit’.


Theresa May at King’s College, London. (c) Jay Allen via Creative Commons

The word meritocracy is a post-war creation. Its creator, British sociologist Michael Young, catapulted the term into mainstream political discourse through his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. The book is told in the guise of a fictional PhD thesis from the year 2033. In this not-too-distant future Britain is a ‘true meritocracy of talent’, where rewards, goods and status are distributed precisely by the formula: ‘I.Q + Effort = Merit’.

Image result for michael young the rise of meritocracy

The new elite this system creates is more secure than its aristocratic predecessor because its status is seen to be the outcome of individual intelligence and effort. While these characteristics may be appear more socially just than birth or luck, this elite feels able to arrogate to themselves larger and larger rewards. By the end of Young’s narrative it has become a distant, heartless and rigid ruling caste.

Despite Young’s warnings Britain’s political elite began a frenzied battle to appropriate the concept and to infuse it with a positive, popular meaning. The concept appealed to Britain’s mainstream ideologies, all of whom could endorse meritocratic policies despite different conceptions of social justice and equality.

For the British Conservative Party adjusting to the changes of the post-war period involved reconciling themselves to meritocracy. Merit, despite its abstract nature, would serve as the new basis for socially legitimate inequalities.

In The Rise of the Meritocracy the integral role played by grammar schools makes private provision as well as the education of the masses redundant. In an age of automation, comprehensives teach functional skills which allow those excluded from the meritocracy to better serve the new elite.

Similarly, Hammond’s budget did little to address an emerging funding crisis engulfing the nation’s education system. The Association of School and College Leaders claim England’s schools are being forced to make £1 billion in savings this year alone, rising to £3 billion by 2020. Many fear that the return of grammar schools will be matched by the emergence of a new generation of comprehensive ‘sink-schools’.

Just as Young warned, therefore, meritocracy may be the cause of, not solution to, the unfairness May perceives has engulfed the nation’s social hierarchy. Despite the Prime Minister’s assertions, Meritocracy is not a new concept. Meritocratic assumptions have been at the heart of major policy changes in post-war Britain from education policy to tax reform.

The Rise of the Meritocracy ends with revolution. Theresa May and Phillip Hammond would do well to heed Young’s warnings. The return of grammar schools, and the faith in meritocracy which underpins their creation, represent an illusory attempt to remedy drastic levels of social inequality and threatens the social stability Conservatives should seek to preserve.

David Civil is a M3C-AHRC funded Doctoral Researcher at the University of Nottingham and University of Birmingham. You can find out more about his work here or follow him on Twitter @Civil_93.

Annual Lecture 2017 – Tara Zahra (Chicago): The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World




Between 1846 and 1940, more than 50 million Europeans moved to the Americas, irrevocably changing both their new lands and the ones they left behind. As villages emptied, some blamed traffickers in human labour, targeting Jewish emigration agents.  Others saw opportunity: to expand their empires, gain economic advantage from an inflow of foreign currency, or reshape their populations by encouraging the emigration of minorities.

These debates about and experiences of emigration shaped competing ideals of freedom in Eastern Europe and “the West” over more than one hundred years. After the Second World War, the “captivity” of East Europeans behind the Iron Curtain came to be seen as a quintessential symbol of Communist oppression. The Iron Curtain was not, however, built overnight in 1948 or 1961. Its foundation was arguably laid before the First World War, when Austrian Imperial officials began a century-long campaign to curtail emigration in the name…

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