Levelling the playing field: How to create an actual meritocracy

One of the first heated debates I had when I started University (the first of many, I might add) was concerning whether or not the UK’s education system was a ‘meritocracy’. I, coming from a state school with poor standards and low achievement levels, certainly could not accept that the society we currently live in is meritocratic. Seeing as the rates of university entrance at my school were probably somewhere in the region of ten percent (and of course most of these were not elite universities) I was not willing to believe that the only reason that private school students, or students from wealthier backgrounds in general do better on average because ‘they are just better’ and this, to me, seems to be the logical conclusion if we did indeed live in a meritocracy.

Of course, you could say that we live in a meritocracy, but do not yet possess a level playing field. This is perhaps more convincing. So what would a level playing field look like? Well, what it would look like would be that the average university entrance level at every school would be the same. Achieving this would be a colossal step forward for social mobility – but set out so starkly, it seems impossible.

Where I think education policy has gone wrong in recent years, in regards to tackling this issue, is the lack of understanding by politicians at the state of education at the bottom. That is, the reality of education the poorest in societies that have no choice and overwhelmingly send their children to the worst schools.

I can in some sense understand where a politician from a middle class background would be coming from if he said we lived in a meritocracy. If a child does well at GCSE, and at their A Levels then they can attend a top university, and get a supported by the state in doing so. Of course if they are poor as well they will also receive a larger loan, a lot of which they will never have to pay back. How can anyone argue that this is not meritocratic?

Now, this is where I believe we lack understanding. Of course all of this is true but what the poorest children in the worst school lack, is not opportunity itself, but the lack of awareness of the opportunities. This is where the deficit is. University is not in these children’s heads; it is not part of their consciousness.

It is hard for people to grasp this. I personally was always going to go to university. My parents did not exactly sit me down and tell me, as it was a just a sort of unspoken fact. For a child growing up in that environment it is easy to see why I ended up where I did – but we must realise that this is not the reality for many children.

So if one wanted to really level the playing field they would do well by educating children about the realities of education in this country. About the paths that are there and the opportunities that are available. I realise that this alone will not be enough, but it is at least a start. At my school, university was only really spoken about to a small group of ‘gifted and talented’ students – if this is the case then how do we expect people to widen their horizons?

This is not to say that I do not acknowledge the difference in resources and practices across all schools, of course I do, but that in many ways is a different debate. Helping students achieve success in examination is only a small part of the education process. Predominantly, we need to equip children with tools with which then can shape their own lives. This is how education should function at its most fundamentally influential level. If we really want people to reach their potential, we need not only provide the opportunities for them to do so but almost acknowledge where they have come from as well. To really level the playing field, school must give clear, lucid advice to pupils from all backgrounds, about future opportunities and what education in this country can really offer them. Only when this is true in every school in the country will we able to even consider calling ourselves a meritocracy.


Humanities Students: it is not all about contact hours

A phrase I am often saddened to hear relating to the way a university education is judged is in its ‘value for money’. This phrase not only saddens me because it reminds me that we live in a country  which insists on putting a price tag on a university education – the value of which I believe is priceless – it also depresses me because it reminds me of the perverse attitude that we now have towards education in general.

Ever since the increase of university fees in the UK, I have read a number of pieces in the media, often by students themselves, concerning contact time for humanity degrees. One that I remember quite vividly was by a student at UCL studying English. She lamented the lack of contact hours in an English degree compared to science ones, suggesting that perhaps, when applying for a humanities degree, students should be asked whether they would like to reconsider their decision. These feelings and opinions troubled me profoundly.

Firstly, one’s degree course should stem from love for their subject and a desire to acquire a sophisticated knowledge of it, so their decision should be completely unrelated to contact hours. (I will, however, concede that this could influence one’s choice of institution, for example if a course at one university has more hours than another). Secondly, why are more contact hours seen as intrinsically better? From the viewpoint of an English student or, indeed, any humanity student, surely the question is one of quality not quantity? If you do a lot of preparation for a seminar, then you will surely get a lot more out of it than if you had three and did not prepare for them at all. That is simply obvious.

However, my main objection to said article, as well as this feeling in general, is summed up by her title ‘Are humanity students teaching themselves?’ Fortunately, we both came to the same conclusion – yes. Although for some reason she saw this as a bad thing.

When a student reaches university they must realise that this is a step up. Not only is it a step up in terms of difficulty, it is also a step up in terms of attitude. It is no longer adequate for a student to merely go through the motions, revise for exams and do essays the night before – if you intend to succeed you must live and breathe your subject.

What seems to dominate this argument about value for money and contact hours is an attitude that the university and our departments should be trying as hard as possible to help us achieve in our degrees. Unfortunately this is not the case – this is not their responsibility – it is ours.

If you are doing a degree then academics and lecturers are not there to spoon feed you answers. They are there to offer guidance and assistance, and they are not teachers. As a student you are making the transition from someone who is taught to someone who is self-taught. This is crucial; as how else would any student go on to do an MA or a PHD?

Now, many students may argue that because my point is true for humanities and science students I am being inconsistent. Well, science students have more contact time due to the way in which their degrees are set up. They need time to be in labs as well as having a lot of rigid content outlined in lecturers. This is not true for humanities students – an awful lot of what we need to learn we can learn from books and does not require copious amounts of contact time.

Is this not, in fact, a desirable situation? Why would you want more lectures and seminars where you are told what to do, when you could have plenty of time to think for yourself, reflect on problems, and read into the aspects that interest you?

It really upsets me that some humanity students do not care for the freedom that their courses offer them. It upsets me that, in a time when what we really need is creativity and ingenuity, people wish to be spoon facts that will serve as a means to an end with no interest in the content. As I have said, education is process – we need to think less of what we get from it and more about what it can draw from us.

Why the Parental contract matters

There is a lot of talk in the news at the moment in Britain about making state schools as good as private ones, and Michael Gove, the British secretary for education, has made it one of his missions to make this a reality.

So why it is that private school are usually so much better than state ones? I find that usually this debate focuses on very superficial things like the argument that ‘they have more money therefore they have better resources’. On the surface, of course, I do not disagree with this claim, but is this really why the students at private school achieve better on average than their state school counter parts? Personally I do not believe it is as simple as this.

I, as regular readers of this blog will know, did not go to a very good school – it was probably one of the worst in the country. It has since improved slightly, and my experience, I would argue, leads me to believe that the reason private schools do better has little to do with resources. My school, for instance, had some very good resources and facilities; I think it is more to do with attitude and parental involvement.

What do all private school children have in common? Their parents are paying for their education out of their own pocket. Now, we can just read this as a simple case of ‘because they can afford to pay for it, that is the only reason they do it’, but we all know this is not the case, as not all parents who can afford it actually send their children to private school. The significance of this decision lies in how much the parents value their children’s education. Of course, I am not saying that those who do not send their children to private schools do not value education but the ones that do, clearly do.

So why is this important? Well, education is not about going to school, learning for a few hours and then coming home. Education is a process, and it should be continuous in one’s life – when a child comes home they should continue to be educated by their parents. Now, that is not to say that the parents need to sit their children down and set them work (although your parents being able to help with your homework is always a bonus) but they should be talking to their children about things, about the world and about life.

Now, many may say it is very arrogant of me to presume that all private school parents do this and that state school ones do not. Of course there are exceptions, but it is clear that a parent that pays for their child’s education obviously wants the most out of it – or else why would they pay? There seems to be a very strong relationship in private schools between the parents, the teachers and the students. They expect a certain level of performance and discipline that is not always expected at state schools – it certainly was not at mine.

If you really want to make a state school as good as a private one, I think you have to get the parents involved and make sure that they understand their role in their child’s education – a parent should not be a passive observer but an active participant. I think in many ways I learnt more about the world from my parents than I did at school, it is obvious that all my interest in philosophy and politics came from my home life.

In this country we increasingly see education as something that schools and teachers ‘do’; we have forfeited our parental and societal responsibility to children’s education. If we do not have the teachers and the parents working towards the same goal then we are in fact fighting a losing battle. It was very obvious to me at school that the children whose parents took the most active role in their education usually succeeded. We need to make sure that our schools are forging relationships between staff and parents – much like charity, education should begin at home.

We need a state school system that involves parents more in their children’s education. If we endeavour to do so, then I truly believe that perhaps our state schools would achieve as well as our private ones – and if we do so, this could have profound implications on inequality in education.

Why we must get children reading

I will be honest, when I was at secondary school I was never a big reader. There had been a few books that captivated my interest, like the Harry Potter series or His Dark Materials trilogy but apart from that I did not read much at all. I did, however, pick up the reading bug at Sixth Form College, and have been hooked ever since.

Now, it is my firm and fundamental belief that reading is the most important activity in education. A child who learns to be a good confident reader – but also finds a passion for reading – will most likely go on to achieve great things in formal education. Someone who reads really can learn anything; all they must do is pick up a book and read it. Of course it is not all that simple, and I am certainly not saying that there is not a role for teachers in this desired method of education – what I am saying is that reading is very important to individual study. Indeed, it is a skill which becomes more important as children progress in education.

However, my feeling is that increasingly we are moving away from teaching the joys reading can incite – and I truly believe it is fair to use the word ‘joy’. In secondary school I cannot remember many occasions where children were actively encouraged to read. Of course, I am fully aware that this is personal experience, but I also know that in the GCSE curriculum it is not required for children to have read more than one book and for many, generally lower achieving, schools, this book is read in class not in students’ own time.

I have empathy for teachers. They know they need the children to read books to have any chance of passing the relevant exams but unfortunately this is a treatment of the symptoms, not the illness. Is it not startling that we cannot simply give a book to a fifteen year old and expect them to read it from cover to cover? Exams are important, but if children are not learning to enjoy reading and are not reading widely, then we have already failed them , regardless of whether we can cram them full of information about a book for a test that they may not have even read.

I believe that encouraging children to read is necessary as soon as they reach secondary school. There is a scheme used in some schools called ‘Drop Everything And Read‘ or DEAR. This is a scheme where for fifteen minutes of every day everyone in a given school reads. And they mean everyone. Not just all students and teachers, but secretarial staff and janitors. Everyone. This scheme has been very successful in encouraging young people to read as it gives them role models to look up to and follow, and creates an environment in which they are surrounded by adults that read, something they may not be used to at home.

I think the decline in reading is often attributed to the rise in technology. This may indeed be true in the sense that people do not read as much as they used to, but this does not excuse the fact that there are children growing up never having read. No one ever said it was easy, but the benefits are so overwhelming that if we do not try we are failing hundreds of thousands of children. How can anyone hope to raise their aspirations and attend university if they do not expand their knowledge in their own time? Of course, we can learn in many different ways now but we cannot let that fact make us neglect this obviously greatly consistent method of learning.

The benefits are too great. Not only will we give children a life long passion and interest, but spelling, grammar, vocabulary can all be greatly improved by just reading. As someone who suffers from dyslexia, even I noticed the difference in my spelling when I started reading regularly, and if it helped me it will certainly help others. If we wish to have children that are articulate, well rounded and intellectually curious, I believe we should do everything we can to encourage reading – it may not be something that can be easily examined and marked – but education is so much more than just grades. It is a process, and reading is fundamental to it. Let us not forget that.

It is not all about academia: the importance of music and sports in education

The main purpose of our education system seems to be academic achievement. Although we do wish for children to do well at all subjects in the curriculum, there is undoubtedly an academic hierarchy – maths, English and science being at the top, and other languages, the humanities and the arts at the bottom. So primarily, success in education is judged by how well one does in the top-end subjects.

In the UK we are currently placing a large emphasis on exam results; we make schools compete against one another and publish league tables. In the schools that are deemed to be failing, emphasis is always put on getting children to do well in English and maths, with all other subjects being regarded as less important. To me this is a big issue. Not only does it remove the chances (in some cases) of children from poor backgrounds getting a properly well-rounded education – I argued in my first piece that this is what exam based education does anyway – but if all the emphasis falls on these two subjects, then the likelihood of this happening increases.

So where do music and sport come into this? Well, I think that if you wish for children to succeed academically in English and maths – but also in science and all the other subjects as well – you must make sure that they are able and greatly encouraged to regularly participate in sport and music. Over two thousand years ago, Plato noted in his great work The Republic, that for someone to live a fulfilled life they must partake in gymnastics, music and philosophy. I believe his point is still relevant today – we cannot isolate academic success from these two very important disciplines.

In the private school sector these provisions are a given; children are able to pursue a wide range of extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, this is not true for state schools. Whilst regular sport is mandatory up to the age of sixteen, it is in many cases vastly underfunded and music is even further behind: while music lessons are attended by all students up to fourteen, there is no requirement to learn an instrument.

Furthermore, these activities are becoming increasingly seen as an added extra for schools that achieve good exam results, and not important in their own right, independent of academic success. This is where I think we have a huge issue, in that experience in these disciplines is extremely important, and can in many cases go hand-in-hand with academic success.

Speaking from experience, I never really achieved particularly well academically until I took up sport and music. Now I know that this personal experience is not solid proof of anything, but this is not just a one-off experience of my own. Indeed, there has been evidence given that has shown that participation in sport and learning a musical instrument can be linked to academic success.

An example of music improving education in this country is the ‘In Harmony’ scheme. Inspired by the El Sistema scheme in Venezuela, local orchestras are used to teach children in schools how to play orchestral instruments and also forming youth orchestras. This scheme has seen rises in attendance at the schools that take part and also a massive rise in results – so why is it that funding for music in schools is not being protected by the government? It seems obvious that participation improves results, but we fail to see any innovative action taken.

I also believe mass participation in sport would improve results. In many schools (including the one I attended) there are poor facilities, and the only sports that are particularly encouraged are athletics and football. In most cases the funding is just not there to provide the opportunity for children to be able to learn a sport from a wide range of options. This is a serious issue, not just for academic achievement, but for the health of our nation as well: there is a vast difference between four hours of non-committal sport a week and a child committing to, and becoming passionate about, a sport. The skills that one gains from this are invaluable: focus, self-discipline, self-confidence and plenty more I could mention. Instead of taking a short-sighted view and attempting to improve English and maths results by cutting off a great deal of access to other areas of the curriculum, we should be investing in sport and music; the skills that not only improve results, but also equip students with skills that will be important for later life as well.

Why can’t education be more about thinking?

My Grandma once said to me something rather profound: that she does not know how to think. It was not an out of the blue statement; we were discussing educational philosophy at the time, something we discuss a lot, as she is a former primary school teacher. She did not attend university, but teacher training college, as this was the route into primary school teaching in the nineteen-fifties. When she was at college she attended lectures concerning education philosophy. The woman who taught the lectures was rather stern and not particularly approachable, and my Grandma (as quite a shy person) never had the courage to ask her after the lectures: can you teach me how to think?

I guess this could be seen as an overly provocative and exaggerated statement – how can anyone not think? But the very fact that she feels this way is very concerning. It is very concerning that any child (or adult, for that matter) would have issues with this, let alone someone who became a teacher! Of course this is merely one example, but I really do think it feeds into a larger, more important issue in education: when are we taught to think?

There does not seem to me to be any subject in which ‘thinking’ is necessarily encouraged. This is of course quite a vague statement – you can think about any subject, but in our current education system is there any subject that really encourages logical and critical thinking or reasoning? These are very, very important skills and the lack of time dedicated to them in the curriculum is, quite frankly, disgraceful.

I have already taken on the idea of exam-based education, as seen in my last post, but these two things are strongly linked. We have taken to believe that education is essentially a process of filling people with knowledge. Now, that is all well and good, but I am sure we are all aware of times when we studied very hard for an exam simply by remembering answers. Perhaps you did very well in the exam, but in a few months you had probably forgotten everything.

Surely this is not a desirable method of education – it should not just be a memory test. The skill of critical thinking is very important for the work place and life in general. If someone is not able to consider a problem and think through a logical, well-reasoned method to find a solution, then how can they ever progress in any field of work or study?

With these goals in mind I believe that we need to bring philosophy into the classroom. It is the only subject that specialises in thinking. This is not about trying to get young children to read Nietzsche, but there are plenty of interesting engaging questions that can be presented to children, with the opportunity for them to respond to these problems. So many life skills will be gained from these classes: how to disagree without having an argument; how to present examples and counter-examples; how to break down arguments – these are skills that really are invaluable.

I believe that many people who do well in education do so because they develop these skills outside of the classroom, perhaps from family life or extra-curricular activities. By not offering the opportunity to develop these skills to all children, we really are failing them. The Philosophy Foundation is doing some great things in the UK to encourage the teaching of philosophy to primary school children with some brilliant results. The link to their website is at the bottom of the page, along with an excellent TED talk on the subject.

We really need to produce an education system which is about thinking, not remembering. This will enable children to become great innovators and problem solvers, and with the current problems we face as a planet and a society, no one can argue that this is an important aim.



We need to start asking ourselves: what is education for?

When I think about education in this country, the first question I ask myself is: what is it for? This is a very important question: one that we really should be perpetually reassessing. But we are not. This question has got completely lost in a system that does not know what its purpose is.

This question is very important to me. As someone who attended a below-average comprehensive school this question was thrown around a lot. However, it was never something I asked myself – the children who regularly asked ‘What is the point of school?’ and ‘When will we ever need this in real life?’ were usually low achievers and/or badly behaved. At the time I shrugged the questions off – I thought they were stupid and unnecessary; we have to go to school so why question what the point of it is? It is only after entering higher education that I have realised how significant these questions really are.

The British education system seems to me to be fundamentally flawed. Now I am conscious at this point of sounding like an irritating old man who thinks that things were much better in the ‘good ole days’; but I assure you I am not that guy. It is just overwhelmingly clear to me that we have lost our way. We need to forge an education system that has clear goals and constantly searches for the best means to achieve them.

We need to remember that education is a process – recently I think we have got far too interested in what we can get out of education and not what education can draw out of us. The obsession with results, statistics and league tables in our current system seems to be profoundly detrimental to the quality of it. If our system is not first and foremost creating articulate sceptical human beings who are intellectually curious: then what is it doing?

Many academics have argued recently that there is a steady decline in literacy across the board, Professor Sarah Churchwell stated on Question Time that she had seen a decline in essay writing standard over the last fourteen years. She seemed to believe this was down to exam based education. We have neglected the importance of a well-rounded education – we need to remember education is not a commodity that we can buy or sell – a GCSE grade is not a representation of any value; it is a rough indicator of the level of intelligence in this field by a particular pupil.

We must give teachers the freedom to actually teach. Just because you can get through an English Literature A level by reading a handful of books does not mean that this is the way in which you should approach the course. The oddest thing about attending a Russell Group university – as I do – is the feeling that all the pupils who attend, attend in spite of exam based education – they all gained their passion and knowledge for the their subject through extra curriculum reading and research.

We need to move away from exam based education – teaching needs to be seen as a process with an outcome that cannot easily be defined. One well-educated youngster can differ tremendously from another, and we need to acknowledge this. I personally do not even believe in a national curriculum, but if we must have one I think it should be a fairly short list of guidelines compiled by an independent committee of head teachers and university academics – and not the Secretary of State for Education.

I truly believe that the enforcement of these principles would leave us in a much better position. An education system that prides itself in these values will produce much more well-rounded, intellectually curious citizens who will be much more able to solve the problems that our country and planet will face in the future.