Conservatives, Grammar Schools and the ‘Great Meritocracy’

Photo for Uni Page

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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Research Round-table: Reconstructing the Historical Subject


We’re delighted to be hosting a round-table on Wednesday 22 February 2017, in Muirhead Tower Room 112, from 4-6pm. Around the theme ‘Reconstructing the Historical Subject’ Dr. Adam Dighton, Dr. Marta Filipová, Dr. Ben Mechen and Dr. Zoë Thomas will discuss their current research. Prof. Matt Houlbrook will chair.


All welcome! Contact: Dr. Simon Jackson,


Dr. Adam Dighton: Military History at the British Army’s Staff College, 1885-1914.

The study of military history formed an important part of the syllabus used to train high ranking officers at the army’s Staff College during the latter half of the ‘long nineteenth century’. During the period between 1885 and 1914 the justification for teaching this subject underwent a fundamental transformation. This was caused by a change in the perceived didactic function of history during this time. It is the aim of this paper to examine why this change took…

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Looking for panels or panellists? MBS 2017

Modern British Studies Birmingham

As the Call for Papers for the British Studies in a Broken World set out, we asked for  proposals offering ninety-minute panels or roundtables related to the conference’s themes or showcasing emerging new research across the field.

Despite some difficulties with this format and some arguments amongst us about what would be best, we felt, based on our experience of the 2015 conference, that it encouraged coherence within panels and helped conversations take place across individual papers and projects.

We are keen, however, to encourage those who are interested in giving papers or organizing panels a forum to discuss this and find possible collaborators. Last time round our forums did not prove particularly popular, so this year we just want those interested to use the comment section on this page to find people.

For those who wish to present a paper – briefly  explain your interests (max 50 words) and…

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Letter to Birmingham City Council on Birmingham Museums

Letter to Birmingham City Council by The History Department of the University of Birmingham

We are aware that the Council, along with other councils around the country, is being forced to make unprecedented cuts to expenditure as a result of central government decisions. We wish to register our condemnation of the austerity policies that have led to these cuts, and to urge the city council to do all you can to minimise their impact upon our vital cultural services.

As part of Birmingham City Council’s budget consultation, it has been proposed that Birmingham Museums Trust will receive a reduction of £500K in funding from April 2017. This is in addition to a cut of £250k that had been previously agreed by Birmingham City Council. As members of the Department of History at the University of Birmingham (and ourselves citizens of Birmingham), we are writing to urge that the cuts imposed on Birmingham Museums Trust should be reduced.

Birmingham has the largest civic museum service in England, with a collection of international significance and a growing reputation for combining academic and artistic excellence with learning, outreach and community engagement. It makes a significant difference to the lives of people in the region and, through its international loans, across the world. It would be extremely unfortunate if the long-term health of this important institution were to be permanently damaged by the need to make budget reductions.

The History Department at the University of Birmingham has an excellent record for Research Excellence: we would wish for our city’s museums to maintain their current strength and position and also reflect Birmingham’s engagement with and investment in the past. We should like to expand on these points in support of this case in the rest of this letter.

Birmingham Museums Trust is an important representative of the region’s support for the arts, alongside the sciences and technology, and plays a huge role in encouraging local, national, and international visitors to the city.

Specifically, Birmingham Museums Trust is routinely referenced by students, and potential students visiting the university, as a key selling point in their decision to attend the university, as it points to the vibrancy and dynamic culture of the city and the area. This is bolstered by the trust’s commitment to running a series of inspirational and evocative events to encourage visitors, most recently shown through their innovative ‘Night in the Museum’ events.

Another key point is the importance of this institute in facilitating the educational experiences of our students: in the seminar room, during independent research projects, and through group visits to the archive and galleries. A popular cultural internship scheme has enabled our students to work with Birmingham Museums Trust on six months placements, allowing them to undertake meaningful projects in the West Midlands region. MA students on the Modern British Studies MA in the History Department at the University of Birmingham visit the museum and art gallery as part of their studies—it is a popular, inspirational part of the course.

Similarly, the riches of the trust are of immeasurable importance for students and scholars alike in the Art History Department. In return, the trust has shown great commitment to digitalising key items from its archive, and curators and staff are always amenable to impromptu group visits and specific requests about archival resources. For students embarking on undergraduate, MA, and PhD dissertations the archives at Birmingham Museums Trust is often one of the first points of call, and the curators, archivists, and museum staff there have done much to assist students with wide ranging interdisciplinary interests.

The breadth of material in these institutions, from the finest Pre-Raphaelite art collection in the world, a staggering away of objects pertaining to world cultures, alongside key archives and objects about Birmingham’s more local culture, provides the perfect place for students to begin their exploratory projects. It is this wealth of materials, which mesh local and global interests, which we feel to be a particularly important feature of this collection. For instance, in this one building visitors can go from the ‘Birmingham: its people, its history’ gallery, before next exploring the ‘Connected Histories: Muslims in the First World War’ exhibition.

We have focused on two main points here, but there are many others, such as the potential such venues provide in educating and empowering people living and working in the area, and in providing a meeting point in the city, much enhanced by Birmingham Museums Trusts’ commitment to a whole roster of exciting and innovative events.

We feel that this venue is a gateway to knowledge, which can be enjoyed by all ages of people from all works of life. These cuts will mean inevitable cuts to staff (and low pay and insecure contrasts for existing staff); the inability to compete nationally or internationally or to curate new, enticing exhibitions; and very likely, a failure to be able to continue to build the collections, or to resource the research and cataloguing of little-known sources pertaining to Birmingham’s history but also the history of the wider world.

Birmingham has a hugely significant role in looking after many of the country’s most important cultural treasures, and we think they should be shown the attention and commitment they deserve. Such cuts would also lead to an inevitable decline in diversity; something past exhibitions have been highly commended for. Surely at a time such as this financial support for Birmingham Museums Trust should be a top priority at the Council?

MBS 2017: Call for Papers Reminder

A quick post to remind you that our call for papers deadline is approaching (28 February) for the Modern British Studies in a Broken World conference.  Our last event was tremendously exciting and we expect this year’s to be equally fascinating, so make sure you don’t miss the deadline!

Please use this blog to submit your panels proposals.

It seems a lot of you have some fantastic ideas for panels, but to those who are looking for panel members or working to create a panel we also have a blog page for that. This is getting a lot of traffic, but we need some browsers to become participants! We know this has been successful for some of the people who have put their details there already.

We are offering 100 free registrations to postgraduate students, ECRs on short-term contracts, and the unwaged, so we encourage panels showcasing the work of new researchers. We are unable to accept individual papers, so please take a look at these pages when putting together your panels.

If you have any questions about panel submission, posting on the blog or the conference in general, please get in touch via the blog, twitter or to the MBS Director.