Some of the worst ideas of socialism refuse to die, despite having been tested to destruction. One of the most disastrous has been the belief that education should be used for social engineering. According to the orthodoxy of the past 40 years, schools and universities should be made to promote equality, fairness and social mobility. Elitism, competition and selection became dirty words in this mind-set. Yet at the same time the role of education was to deliver meritocracy. The tragedy — and it has been a tragedy for millions of schoolchildren — is that this toxic ideological muddle has brought education low without actually achieving any real social mobility.
It is hardly necessary to point to the failures of education over the past few decades since they are so well established by evidence. School-leavers’ literacy and numeracy standards are shockingly low, as employers constantly complain. Our schools are falling down the international tables. A-levels, despite howls of denial, have been debased: they have become much less demanding, and the proportion of A-level applicants getting A grades has rocketed. Top universities are now obliged to give new students remedial classes. And so on.
You might think parents, teachers and even educational theorists would finally have got the message that something isn’t working and start thinking differently. Yet it seems they can’t. They seem stuck in the old, undead mind-set. As Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said last week at a conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, lobby groups of all kinds expect teachers and schools to solve too many of society’s problems: “It seems that the first answer of many to almost any problem in society is to give a duty to schools to tackle it, be it obesity, teenage pregnancy or knife crime … every other week I am presented with proposals from one well-meaning group or another to add something ‘socially desirable’ to the curriculum.”
No doubt all these groups are indeed well-meaning. But to believe that it is the responsibility of schools to sort out these intractable problems when they struggle to provide even a minimal education is daft. Imagine the predicament of a teacher in an average secondary school with a large “inclusive” class of children of all aptitudes and social backgrounds. This vast unteachable mix is one of the worst results of the national obsession with equality. The teacher is already struggling to meet the all-too-various educational needs of her pupils. How is she supposed to administer an antidote to social deprivation, abusive families, mental disturbance and violent pupils when she can barely keep order? As Gibb rightly said, if schools filled the curriculum with social issues there would be no time left for academic subjects. He sees his role as resisting those pressures so schools can concentrate on educating pupils: “My view is that the best way for schools to tackle social problems … is to make sure children leave school well educated. That is the best way out of poverty.”
Well said, but why does it need saying at all? Why, after all the failures of social engineering of the past, isn’t that obvious? Underlying this confusion is a refusal to face unpleasant facts. The first is that equality is a myth. Inequality and unfairness are real enough and often very ugly. But the unswerving pursuit of equality in education can also be ugly and is always counterproductive. It is in practice unfair to everybody. Brighter children are used to improve the educational experience of less able children, holding them back unfairly and reducing their future educational chances — a nasty kind of equality.
The second nasty fact is that equality is at odds with meritocracy. That ought to be obvious, but time and again commentators talk of the need for equality in education to promote meritocracy. What they seem to ignore is that true meritocracy is unequal: the ablest rise to the top to grasp the glittering prizes and form new privileged elites, while the rest are left behind. Nor do they examine why some children rise up while others don’t, beyond denouncing privilege and “creaming off”.
To judge from the constraints upon what politicians can actually say, much of the public still seems to be in the grip of a fuzzy egalitarian dream. It is beautifully summed up in the oxymoronic slogan of Blair’s Department for Education: “Excellence for all.” Quite clearly, all cannot have excellence or excel. Excellence means pre-eminence, superiority, towering above others, from its Latin root.
I don’t doubt that if all children received the same advantages as the privileged few, they would all do vastly better and some would excel. But environment is not the only thing that matters. That’s proved by the experiences of all the luckiest and most successful families.
Clever Mr and Mrs Yuppie shower attention, stimulus, tutors and top schools on their children and what do they discover? They find that one or two of their children may be bright enough to pass into the top independent schools and universities, but a third child might fail to do so. That is because he or she is not as innately bright as their siblings. Not all children are born equally able, even in the Yuppies’ world.
In other words, the outstanding successes of the most privileged children cannot be explained away by privilege and money, as the leftists say; the children have to be very bright as well.
Clearly there are lots of children from less privileged backgrounds who are innately bright but who fall upon thorny ground. It is a disgrace that so few children now get a chance to prove their abilities. They have to watch with their poor A-levels while universities quarrel about positive discrimination, which won’t necessarily help them anyway.
The unmentionable truth is that no one actually knows how to find those children or who they are. The idea that bright children are equally represented in every socioeconomic group and that all groups should be equally “represented” at university is nothing but a lazy, unexamined assumption. It may be correct, but there are reasons for thinking it might well not be — assortative mating among the most privileged is one.
Trying to impose equality on all has succeeded in only one thing: destroying meritocracy and imposing mediocrity and failure on most schoolchildren. Socialism in its most insidious form remains undead.