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Why meritocracy is a different animal

Equality of educational opportunity is incompatible with Labour's pursuit of equality of wealth, says Fred Forrester

With the other political parties at Westminster effectively sidelined for the duration of this Parliament, the only real debates on political issues are likely to take place within the confines of the Labour Party.

Roy Hattersley, who still functions as the conscience of New Labour, has suggested that the key issue is whether meritocracy should take precedence over redistribution of wealth as the guiding principle for Tony Blair's second term. He says "no", but his view has been dismissed by New Labour sources as being outdated.

Meritocracy has been defined as IQ plus effort. Most Government ministers and many in the professions, including teaching, are clearly meritocrats. They are the children of skilled manual workers who used the opportunities of the 1950s and 60s to enter higher education and to build successful careers. The trouble with meritocracy is that it is not easily reproducible for each new generation.

It has become increasingly difficult for children from today's manual worker families to escape their backgrounds. Society has become more polarised. In some parts of England (Oldham, Burnley, etc), whole areas have been ghettoised. While this is not true of Scotland, it is still the case that large swaths of our urban areas may be seen as middle-class or working-class.

Since school intakes are still mainly geographical, we have created school populations where the families are mainly middle-class, mainly skilled working-class with employed parents, or mainly deprived, living on benefits and often single-parented. In such circumstances, equality of opportunity, which is at the heart of meritocracy, does not exist, despite the best efforts of the schools. However, social and economic equality, the ultimate objective of Hattersley and his followers, is even more remote.

I have known many Scottish teachers who have agonised over this situation. They are themselves meritocrats and would love to see their relative success in life repeated among their pupils; and it is always a delight to teach a willing pupil, regardless of social background. But the home circumstances of many pupils make it nearly impossible for them to succeed and they know this, with predictable effects on their work and behaviour.

Generally speaking, the more left-wing the teacher, the greater the agony. Some take refuge in policy scapegoating, for example blaming everything on changes in higher education funding. But the truth is that the problem has no one source and certainly no one solution. Perhaps it is rooted in technological advances that have greatly reduced skilled and unskilled manual employment.

It would help if we recognised that education is fundamentally different from other public services in that its effectiveness depends on the attitude of the clients. Health, housing, social services and transport are largely deliverable to passive clients. Even if a patient has negative attitudes, medical staff may deliver a reasonable service. Public housing is provided mainly without regard to the merits or the attitudes of the clients.

With education, however, no amount of good teaching and no amount of public spending will be guaranteed to deliver educated pupils because education is a two way process in which willingness to learn and effort are indispensable.

So what is the role of teachers in the debate between meritocracy and redistribution? Some, like Mr Chips, will confine themselves to providing a good professional service to whoever they encounter, but education is too close to the cutting edge of politics for this to be a satisfactory philosophical position. Such detachment will cut no ice in teaching citizenship or modern studies or in many other subjects or in guidance work.

A teacher who espouses Hattersley-style redistribution must face the fact that education is on the fringes of this particular campaign. Educationists, alone, cannot influence general economic or taxation policies.

Meritocracy is different. If this is indeed the policy that will be punted from Downing Street and eventually from Holyrood, then teachers and schools can hammer home the message that education is still the most likely escape route from poverty and deprivation and that a new generation should never accept that their own lives will be constrained in the same way as their parents' lives.

Education can be an antidote to social determinism, but only with the willing participation of the deprived individuals. Part of that willingness can be characterised as aspiration, which is not egalitarian in its thrust.

The pursuit of equality is incompatible with that of equality of opportunity, a quite different concept which has far more resonance with the principles of the great educators of the past.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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