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.

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.