Status anxiety

I’m working to make education fairer. But I’m still not sure what ‘fairer’ means

The questions my father asked about meritocracy still don’t have good answers

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

Civitas has just published an interesting book called The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools. Edited by Anastasia de Waal, it’s a collection of essays by the usual suspects in the never-ending argument about grammar schools.

De Waal points out that the two sides have more in common than you’d think. In particular, they share a common goal, which is to sever the link between a child’s socio-economic status and attainment. In 2009, according to the OECD, the variance in the scores of British children in the Pisa international tests in maths, reading and science that could be explained by their backgrounds was 13.8 per cent. By this measure, the best-performing region in the world is Macau (2 per cent) and the worst is Peru (27.5 per cent). Britain is close to the OECD average of 14 per cent.

As you’d expect, those who believe in school selection, such as the Conservative MP Graham Brady, argue that clever children from poor families are likely to do better at grammars than comprehensives. Exhibit A in the case for the defence is the dominance of the professions by the products of independent schools, something that wasn’t true before Tony Crosland set out ‘to destroy every fucking grammar school in England’. In response, Fiona Millar and others point out that the number of working-class children at grammars rarely climbed above the 15 per cent mark, even in their heyday, and that the proportion of children on free school meals in the 164 that remain is just 2 per cent. Today, the main beneficiaries of selective education are still the middle classes.


It’s easy to rebut this argument. A majority Conservative government could make it a condition of allowing an existing grammar to expand — or a new one to be set up — that it set aside some places for children on free school meals. Millar also argues that the 11-plus isn’t a true intelligence test — private tutors etc., etc. — and that intelligence isn’t fixed at 11, but continues to develop in adolescence. It is easy to deal with these objections. Design a better test and allow for more movement in and out of selective schools as children mature.

A stronger argument against grammars is that the gains made by the children who benefit in a two-tier system are offset by the losses inflicted on the ones left behind. Failing the 11-plus can leave you with a lifelong inferiority complex, as John Prescott can testify, and children at secondary moderns gets poorer GCSE results on average than children at comprehensives. Against this, defenders point out that it’s not just the recipients of a selective education who benefit. Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize-winning president of the Royal Society, has made a succession of discoveries that may lead to a cure for cancer. Would he have gone down the same path if he hadn’t attended Harrow County Grammar School? The more deeply I delve into this discussion, the harder I find it to take sides. But the argument that troubles me most is one that applies to both camps. Suppose we invent a new type of school that meets the objective of nearly everyone in this debate, namely, it severs the link between background and achievement? If we succeed in neutralising all the environmental factors that go hand-in-hand with socio-economic status — postcode, diet, parental engagement etc — what are we left with? The answer is a meritocratic school in which achievement is solely the product of IQ and effort.

The trouble is that IQ and an aptitude for hard work are largely inherited characteristics. Why is a school in which success is dictated by a child’s genes fairer than one in which it’s dictated by socio-economic status? More importantly, there’s quite a lot of evidence that children of intelligent, hardworking parents are likely to be smart and industrious, a correlation that’s becoming stronger as university graduates engage in ‘assortative mating’. (People with similar genotypes pairing up with each other.) This was the shortcoming of meritocratic societies that my father drew attention to in his book on the subject — once assortative mating kicks in, social mobility grinds to a halt. All meritocracy succeeds in doing is replacing one hereditary elite with another. Why, then, is it desirable?

Instinctively, I like the idea of this new type of school and I’ve spent the past six years trying to invent it. But I still haven’t answered the question posed by my father.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • tjamesjones

    yes, exactly. There is no easy answer, my own favourite would be to come up with a plan that removed the stigma from the non-selective schools which will educate the majority of children – possibly by boosting the vocational aspect. I’m not at all sure this is possible, but it might have some chance if the political parties could agree that each generation will have an elite and that the only choice we’ve got is how that elite is constituted. It appears that without the influence of grammar schools, we’re left with privately educated children dominating. But fools like Tristram Hunt will mouth some rubbish about everybody getting a good education, the teachers unions will buy it and we’re left precisely where we are today.

    • marklu

      It’ll take more than platitudes of that ilk from Hunt to win over teachers or their unions. The NUT, was at constant war in the latter half of the last decade over pay, conditions and academies with NULAB. Teachers have a pretty cynical vie of politicians, though for many the infantile name calling by the last Secretary of State helped ensure that they may see Hunt as the lesser of two evils.

      • tjamesjones

        my interest is as a parent and as a citizen, and I probably could forgive Gove for name-calling if that’s what he didn’t, given the ludicrous abuse he received. The #1 trick that labour employ is to pretend that there is some alternative to the trade-offs we’ve got (e.g. grammar schools + stigma vrs lack of social mobility). Though it seems that when they’re schooling their own little darlings, they quite like the crisp solutions that the private sector provides. Hypocrites.

        • marklu

          I take it then that you’d be as happy for any labour minister to behave in Govine mode if abused by sections of the media?

          I hold no brief for labour on education policy, there is barelya fag packets worth of difference between them and the Tories

          • tjamesjones

            why are you going on about this point? Maybe in your world “Govine” means abusing unions? I don’t know, it doesn’t in mine. I don’t even get what your point actually is – I defended Gove’s response to ongoing provocations from media & unions & that pompous privately educated hypocrite, but surely the real issue is doing the best for children. NOT doing the best for teacher’s unions, or worst of all labour’s electoral chances. Why not talk about policy and let the rest hang.

          • marklu

            No Govine means referring to anyone including parents who disagree with his policies as Trots and enemies of Promise. It so hacked of parents that it got him the sack. He can say what he likes about unions, that’s politics.

            My point was Gove’s rhetoric as the only really substantive difference between tehnand now and both major parties.

            By all means let’s talk about the policy. My view is simple. An over centralised micro managed state education system leads to the sort of nonsense we saw in Birmingham. You just can’t run 24000 schools from the centre.

            I am also concerned about who actually now owns large chunks of public property and land and the non accountability of academy chains as they cannot be inspected

          • tjamesjones

            this is slightly easier than simply banging my head against the wall, but not much: Gove’s most famous policy was to extend the NL academies and free schools: the only meaningful definition of these is that they are schools NOT RUN from the centre.

          • marklu

            Really? Schools which may only be set up with the express approval of the Secretary of State with funding agreements signed off by him /her and can be cancelled by that person at the drop of a hat?

            Oh then we have the fact that Schools can have sponsors imposed on them by guess who?

            And local government cannot commission new schools only Whitehall?

            Can you explain how that is not run from the centre?

          • tjamesjones

            yes: these schools aren’t run from the centre. Free schools are run by groups of teachers, parents, other charity groups. That’s not the centre. You make reference to the approval process being centralised, which I can make sense of (as the centre is also funding, right).

            if your real beef is around local government – I mean, that particular centre of excellence doesn’t really appeal to me…

          • marklu

            You’ve only mentioned Free Schools and how they are initiated. they account only for less than 1% and the truths I stated about funding agreements and approval of the curriculum still stand.

            What about the other points I raised?

            My real beef. Actually as a matter of principle I would rather see my kids school overseen by the local , competent Tory run LA I can vote in and out of office than have it handed by Whitehall to a religious second hand car dealer. That happened down the road. Place is in special measures for the first time. When it failed it had zero parent governors, before hand it had three.

            I think lots of Gove’s fans would be horrified if this centralisation of powers came under RED ED, and rightly so.

  • bwaugh

    “Why is a school in which success is dictated by a child’s genes fairer than one in which it’s dictated by socio-economic status?”

    Success isn’t *dictated* by either, but it is limited by both. Removing the additional limitations due to socio-economic status is obviously fairer, isn’t it?

  • stephengreen

    A genetic hierarchy (Charles Murray has written extensively on this) does not preclude bright children from dimmer parents (through genetic sorting – recombination etc) managing to find their way through the system. Additionally, while this may become the norm, arguably, should become the norm, it doesn’t mean that more intelligent people will always find roles at the top of society.

    Historically, the noble and richer families had progeny with higher levels of intelligence (on average) and yet not the resources (primogeniture) to spread between a larger number of children (on average) whose individual fortunes therefore saw them sink down the social hierarchy. There’s extended arguments for how this process allowed the industrial rev and other aspects of our history to occur (see for instance The 10,000 Year Explosion). So the intelligence levels of a population may become more diffuse, not more centralised. As automation in society takes a greater share of employment chances away, this is bound to significantly contribute too.

    I tend to like the idea of intelligence being the key determinant to producing better life chances becoming better known. For instance, there’s a beautiful woman (or man) of average intelligence to whom your attraction levels scream at top volume, but whose beauty shelf-life is very constrained compared to a plain, highly intelligent woman whose gifts are less time sensitive. Which one is the best option for settling down with? What implications does this have for doe-eyed marriage ideas held by many of our younger generations?

    Final thought: why can we not reconsider the Assisted Place Scheme? State subsidy to bright children to attend public schools? Not all are selective (many do less well academically than local state schools) but, IMO, offer a better, more rounded education without the animus towards learning of most state schools and therefore enhanced life perspectives.

    • Raph Shirley

      Where is the evidence for your theory about relationships between race and IQ?

      • stephengreen
        • Raph Shirley

          That is an interesting paper. It is good to see a serious statistical analysis. Nevertheless given deviations within a population are greater than differences between the means, why is race relevant to this discussion? Presumably you are not suggesting using race to distribute school places?

          • stephengreen

            The articles focus is on fairness in education. I am suggesting that (regardless of overall spread) where people from certain ethnic backgrounds tend to group together at one end or the other, then the ‘environmental and socio-economic arguments’ mentioned in the essay will come into political play. The political utility of this argument is lessened in more racially (or ethnically, if you’d prefer) homogeneous societies. One interesting way to see the ethnic interest perspective in action and therefore inter-ethnic rivalry is in the US. There, there has been long-standing affirmative action, in all but name, in many higher education institutions. The beneficiaries tending to be black US citizens the losers tending to be south east Asians. Here’s a quick article I’ve pulled up (there may be better outlines of the situation, but limited for time) http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2014/1118/Why-are-Asian-students-suing-Harvard-for-affirmative-action-policies-video

    • TGill

      IQ does not test intelligence, it tests knowledge and skills that are considered to demonstrate intelligence, and only those which can be measured.

      Thus it has always been a crude measure – the Carol Vorderman factor always comes into play here – higher than average IQ but not able to achieve more than a third in her degree.

      The way you, and people who want to ‘prove’ that racial differences are real use IQ as a definitive measure of intelligence flies in the face of the fact that it is possible to improve in all the IQ tests ever written. This would not be possible if it measured intelligence in the way that is suggested above. It should be fixed. If it’s not then what else comes into play? Socialisation, education, culture, expectation (which by the way teacher expectations have been shown to affect outcomes over and over again) but then none of this supports the superiority/inferiority complex that you are tied to.

      If you want propose this eugenic nonsense then at least get your definitions correct. Punjabis are not a race, neither are Hindus (Punjab is a region and Hinduism is a religion). Punjabis consist of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus who are only divided due to the partition of the Punjab not because they constitute a different race. I have never heard of Indians being subclassified into races before.

      However, I can appreciate that the defenders of the narrative that justified subjugation, colonialism and slavery are having to find new and inventive ways to make their case that some people are inferior.

      • stephengreen

        You know TGill under normal circumstances, I’d walk through the idiocy of your post and the various follow-ups you make, but as it’s not effectively a dormant post with only our eyes there, it’s not worth my time.

        • TGill

          No you don’t want to make counterpoints because you wrote an eloquent but factually incorrect post.

          The facts are:
          IQ is not fixed, peoples scores can and do change
          IQ is not an objective test of intelligence it does depend on what you questions you ask and what you focus on
          Regional and religious groups are not the same as the ‘biological’ races you are referring to.

          I would love to know what happens to the IQ of Punjabi Hindus? ( if you need some proof that Hindus have lived in the Punjab for hundreds of years – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punjabi_Hindus)
          Presumably the Hindu part and the Punjabi part cancel themselves out!!

          You fact that you think you have to ‘walk me through’ anything thanks. Just provide me with some evidence that the groups you claim to be ‘races’ such as Hindus actually are, oh and I would genuinely love to read articles about the IQ of Hindu Punjabis.

  • Raph Shirley

    Clearly the top people have high IQ and are hardworking and the bottom have low IQ and do not work hard. However, how do we distinguish between the other two categories? Is it better to be stupid and industrious or clever and lazy?

    I find it easy to view IQ as genetically hereditary but industriousness seems more complicated (related to family work ethic and role models). Have identical twin studies been done?

  • marklu

    I like the way you try dismiss Fiona Millar’s comments as
    easy to dispense with. Even when you move from pandering to bigots mode to
    serious the old tribalism gets a grip.

    Let’s just see how easy. Firstly your glib assertion that a Conservative government could impose an FSM quota blows out of the water all that claptrap you’ve spent five years feeding us about freedom from bureaucrats out of the water.

    Either the quota would be imposed on academised Grammars by Whitehall or in LA’s such as Kent by the Town Hall bureaucrats you keep telling us should not be running schools.

    How many FSM kids does WLFS take from its authority area, is
    it the same as the proportion in local Primary Year 6 classes. Some
    commentators suggest it is less in which case would you welcome such
    intervention for your school? That would shut those lefties over at LSN up
    wouldn’t it?

    Millar’s point about the unreliability of using a single test at 11 to divide children in spite of the fact that children develop at different times speeds and not in a linear form is just airily dealt with by suggesting changing to a currently non-existent test and creating a complex system of retesting to move children to and from schools.

    At what stage would you stop transferring children from theirgrammar school to their Sec Mod. In year 9? Half way through Year 10? And how many strikes would a relegated child be allowed before shuffling down the food chain? And would they have to show deficiency in certain subjects, or all of them or would your (non-existent) test simply re-measure IQs to see if they had shrunk?

    I suspect Millar thinks that a well organised comprehensive,like the one my kids went to can take care of differences in performance as kids peak and trough through different subjects by moving them up and down sets; rather than the expensive rigmarole of setting validating and moderating a range of assessments (obviously all independent of those Local bureaucrats you dislike so much) in order to move kids from one school to another.

    I reckon a Conservative government is no more likely to go down the route you suggest than it is likely to alienate some of its core vote by saying to some of them they are too affluent to go to the school their IQ suggests they should. Don’t you?

  • rorysutherland

    There is a possible solution, which is to make the shape of educational success less like Mount Fuji and a little more like the Alps.

    Sport, when you think about it, has already done this. I am fat, ungainly and physically lazy, but I could probably find a few sports at which I could be reasonably good. Darts, perhaps. Or sumo. Or bowls.

    If you imagine a world where the only sport which could legally be played was soccer, it would be intolerably unequal. About 40 footballers would command about half the world’s GDP between them, with everyone else feeling a failure. Fortunately, if you’re not good at soccer, you can still find some other way to succeed by exploiting your comparative advantage at something else. It isn’t that hard to be a better golfer than Gareth Bale.

    The business world is fairly similar to sport in that respect. Find the right niche which exploits your comparative strengths, and you can be fine, even if you are rubbish at lots of other things. That’s why companies exist: to be a repository for complementary skills and for improving performance through the division of labour.

    It is the university system, by contrast which is artificially uniform in what it rewards. The need to seem objectively and transparently fair at an individual level demands that you must apply the same entry criteria for everyone, which means there can only be one narrow definition of human value. It is costly to compete in such a narrow race, which gives the sharp-elbowed middle class an advantage at gaming the system. The credentialist obsession which demands a 2:1 for entry to the professions makes this worse (despite the fact that there seems to be no connection between degree class and career success).

    If you could find evidence that IQ is a multidimensional thing you might be better off. Quite a few scientists believe that it isn’t – that G correlates with all forms of intelligence – although, in my case, if you judged my IQ on the spatial questions alone, I would be placed in a home. Nevertheless it is fairly obvious that human talent is unevenly spread.

    You could also break the practice where it is assumed that people go to university straight after school. The expansion of universities in many ways had the appalling effect of stigmatising people without a degree, by making them a minority.

    But unless you change the narrow obsessions of universities (or our obsession with universities) there is not much you do to create a really great school.

  • jim_herd

    There was an interesting report published yesterday by the government: National diet and nutrition survey supplementary report: blood folate https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/national-diet-and-nutrition-survey-supplementary-report-blood-folate. I mention this because it shows the stark reality of malnutrition in the UK today. Clearly, children who are malnourished will simply be unable to do as well at school as their innate academic ability should allow. Until such times as all children are provided with sufficient nutrition tailored to their individual needs then there will never be equality of opportunity no matter how much effort is put into trying to ensure that our schools provide it. Folate deficiency affects all systems and organs of the body resulting in numerous symptoms from lack of concentration to suppressed immune systems resulting in increased susceptibility to infections and more. Such simple to address nutritional deficiencies mean that otherwise intelligent children fall by the wayside unnecessarily and we may lose their talents forever.

    Once we can guarantee good health for all our children then we stand a fighting chance of ensuring that we can get the best out of each of them according to their abilities. At that point we will inevitably be confronted by the stark reality of the normal distribution of, for example, sporting and academic ability. It seems pretty clear to me that the only reasonable thing to do is to ensure that we provide each pupil with an education that challenges them according to their abilities. This necessarily means some form of streaming and some pupils studying a range of subjects not available to others. Obviously, it is in our national interest to provide the best possible education to each and every pupil and we shouldn’t allow ideology to deny the best pupils the best academic educations in the name of “fairness”. Clearly that is not fairness at all.

    I don’t think that assortative mating producing a hereditary elite is necessarily a problem providing that the resulting society can demonstrate that it is doing its utmost to get the best from everyone. Presumably, such a society would be incredibly successful and everyone, even those at the bottom, would share in the spoils with a social welfare state that ensured real good health leading to a good education and fulfilling employment for all not just the hereditary elite. We’re certainly a long way from achieving anything like this but I think the seeds are being sown now with cheap access to DNA testing and its promise of personalised health.

  • Mr. Young would be less perplexed about meritocracy if he realised that the idea was a response to the clear and present injustices of valued jobs and opportunities being given to people whose abilities and talents were inferior to countless who were not so favoured as themselves. It is still -especially now in education- a valuable principle but it was not, in the first place, a model for a social order, whether egalitarian or, obversely, of the kind the previous commenter has a wont to hark back to (presumably on the specious pretext that archaic language lends his crude bigotry a patina of respectability).

    “This new type of school” sounds like Huxley’s brave new world to me. That’s because you are assuming you already know what is valuable and what is not. You don’t and all the genetic terminology in the world (nothing against it) will not tell you. The meritocratic ideal does not presuppose that inequality or, for that matter ‘assortive mating’ ensues from the authority obtained according to expertise and the opportunities obtained according to talent, nor is this a necessary consequence. If you take the egalitarian assumption away from the ideal, you should not be surprised, upon examining it again, to find it yielding inegalitarian results -nor should you use it to legitimate those results.

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