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.