Many words have been written in recent weeks about the results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). Once more, we have been encouraged to learn from the high-achieving Asian countries, many of which have a Confucian-heritage culture that values education highly. But one aspect of that culture is often overlooked: the notion of "meritocracy". It is worth reflecting on what this ideal means for education.
The term signifies that economic, political and social advancement depend on merit, not on social class, race, religion or guanxi (connections). Merit is seen as a mixture of effort and ability, particularly in academic work. The ruling elite in a meritocratic society can come from any background, are well educated and often extremely well paid. The education system is both the trainer and the adjudicator for this race to the top, and key public exams - including the pre-university gaokao in China and leaving exams from primary and secondary school in Singapore - are major life events.
The cultural drives behind meritocracy go back some 2,000 years to the ancient Chinese imperial civil service examination (the keju), which was, in theory at least, open to candidates from all backgrounds and fiercely policed to discourage nepotism or cheating. Until the end of the 19th century, the elite administrators had to excel in rhetoric (mastering the "eight-legged essay") and philosophy, and the small proportion who succeeded were able to become venerated "scholar-officials".
Frequent resitting of the keju was admired as a sign of perseverance and commitment, and there are stories of octogenarians who sat the exam regularly throughout their adult life.
Meritocracy is a counterweight to other traditions, including centuries-old practices of manipulating spheres of influence to award privileges. In many Confucian-heritage countries, both traditions are felt strongly. Education is expected to be a fortress of fairness and any apparent lapses, such as have been reported recently at the prestigious Renmin University of China, cause concern at all levels.
Perhaps the purest form of meritocracy is found in Singapore, where I am based as Cambridge International Examinations' regional director of education for South East Asia. Singapore's leaders often cite meritocracy as one of the state's founding principles, or describe it as "part of our DNA".
There are clearly many good things about meritocracy. It is fairer than systems that favour the rich or titled, or where advancement depends on who your relatives are. Some have also argued that the competitive drive makes all students work harder, pushing up educational standards across the board. Certainly some of the meritocratic systems, including Singapore's, have had excellent Pisa results. However, it is difficult to tell how much this can be attributed to the incentive of competition and how much to family and peer valuing of education as important and for everyone.
Meritocracy has its own mythology, with heroes and heroines who have succeeded despite humble backgrounds, or have overcome disability or other challenges. They have a symbolic significance well beyond their numbers and are often cited to demonstrate the benefits of the system. In his address to Singapore's National Day Rally last year, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong was moved to tears when he praised Dr Yeo Sze Ling, once a blind student who went to an "ordinary" (district) school and excelled in maths, now a research scientist.
But meritocracy has downsides, too. Commentators suggest that when meritocratic education systems mature into their second, third and fourth generations, inequalities tend to increase, as they have in Singapore. The winners in each generation seek to give their children advantages by choosing expensive houses near the best schools, advocating school selection processes favouring the sons and daughters of alumni and buying in extra tuition. We are seeing an "arms race" of expenditure on private tutors, with each family feeling forced to keep up. These kinds of costs can be prohibitive to many. Each time governments try to level the playing field - by subsidising or providing preschool education, for example - the successful find another way to push their children on.
Too good to be true?
There are also downsides in terms of attitudes and values. A combination of increasing "social distance" between winners and losers, upward-looking envy from losers and arrogance or lack of social commitment among winners can lead to tensions. If merit depends to some degree on effort - and to that extent is seen as "deserved" - that could prompt thinking by the rich and successful caricatured by Singaporean academic Augustine Low as: "I made it because I'm smart, driven and hard-working, and you messed up because you lack intelligence and work ethic and therefore you deserve your fate."
Donald Low, another Singaporean scholar, writes of two types of meritocracy. The first, which he calls "trickle-down", concentrates on selecting an educated elite, freeing them from burdens and restrictions, and enabling them to promote economic growth and good government that will benefit all. The second model, "trickle-up", involves intervention by government in two ways. First, government can intervene to equalise the starting position of all - for example, by requiring the best schools to widen their admission criteria, putting resources into schools in poorer areas and subsidising preschool education. Secondly, it can act to improve the outcomes for "losers" in the academic competition, by providing viable alternative routes to good employment and a secure livelihood, and better public facilities and social safety nets. "Trickle-up" is increasingly considered to be better than "trickle-down".
The top of the Pisa tables is dominated by Confucian - heritage countries that largely believe in meritocracy. But some of the downsides can perhaps be seen in the Pisa equity index, in which Singapore is "only" 12th. Unsurprisingly, it does better in the "resilience" index, which reflects the proportion of students in the bottom socio-economic quartile of their country who are in the top quartile for achievement of students from all countries. But the Pisa report raises, and does not answer, questions about the links between educational success, personal happiness and social harmony, and about what constitutes well-being in a developed economy.
These issues are much discussed in Singapore. It is quite usual for conversations with taxi drivers to move on from the obligatory reflection on the fluctuating fortunes of Manchester United to equity in education. And a recent conference of Singapore's national leaders passed a resolution stating: "We resolve to uphold an open and compassionate meritocracy, where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential ... We will strive to preserve social mobility so that all Singaporeans, regardless of social background, can succeed in diverse fields."
On the evening of that conference, Singapore had its first riot in 40 years. The alleged perpetrators were immigrant workers, not products of its own education system, but the shock waves are still being felt. Is it really possible for a developed economy to be open and compassionate as well as meritocratic?
Isabel Nisbet is regional director of education in South East Asia for Cambridge International Examinations.