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The Crisis of the Meritocracy

Britain’s Transition to Mass Education

since the Second World War


Peter Mandler


Oxford: University Press, 2020

Hardback. xvi+362 pp. ISBN 978-0198840145. £25


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



Rather than offering a straightforward account of major changes in secondary and higher education in twentieth-century Britain, cultural and social historian Peter Mandler focuses on two guiding concepts, ‘meritocracy’ and ‘democracy’. Drawing on the research of countless economists, sociologists, education experts and policy makers as well as historians, and quoting numerous records of public opinion, he sets his enquiry in a wide-ranging appraisal of how British society has come to change over the past half century. Educated in both the USA and Great Britain and having taught at two strikingly different universities (London Guildhall 1991-2001, and subsequently Cambridge), he is very well equipped to undertake this exploration. His starting point is the harsh fact that only one fifth of the relevant cohort went on to secondary school on the eve of World War II, and a mere 2 per cent attended university at that time. Now all teenagers attend secondary schools, remain in education or training until aged 18, and virtually half of those leaving secondary education proceed to university despite the present high fee regime. How and why this transformation has come about are Mandler’s central questions.

He begins by glancing back to the early decades of the twentieth century when the school system only offered ‘a minimum competency to the 80 per cent of the population that were expected to end their education at the elementary level. [This] was not a gateway to secondary education’ or anything more advanced [1]. Of course, affluent members of the social elite sent their children to private, fee-paying schools (some of which, confusingly, are known as ‘public schools’) and these institutions provided both secondary education and a potential route to university. Mandler declares that Britain had nothing short of ‘a system of educational apartheid …dominated by inherited privilege’ that was not greatly affected by legislation which gradually raised the school leaving age to 14 years by 1921 [1]. Very few pupils managed to obtain scholarships to proceed to ‘grammar schools’ which offered academic secondary education. As late as 1939, most British teenagers experienced only elementary schooling; there was ‘no ladder of opportunity…for the vast majority’ [1]. But change was imminent. At the end of World War II, secondary education was made compulsory and by mid-century universities were slowly beginning to expand. These trends heralded the dawn of the state education system now in place.

The new ‘ladder of opportunity’ stood on the notion of ‘meritocracy’ that ‘made no assumptions about who deserved high-status positions in life but argued that to ensure the best selection (or alternatively a degree of natural justice) everyone ought to be allowed to compete for them’ [4]. In order to privilege ability over advantages of birth, this approach required an assessment, or test, that would be taken by all pupils. A different interpretation came with the notion of ‘democracy’ that embraced a contrasting idea of equality of opportunity based on the realisation that fundamental social inequalities would be reproduced if secondary education separated scholarly bright pupils from the rest. Echoing demands from a nation emerging from war and increasingly aware of divisions in society, the ‘Butler Act’ of 1944 (named after R.A. Butler, Conservative President of the Board of Education) required every local authority in England and Wales to provide secondary education on a meritocratic principle. Thereafter, all pupils sat the ‘Eleven Plus’ test (at age 11) and their results determined whether they would attend grammar schools (for academically bright children), technical schools or secondary modern schools for the rest. Promotion of Christian education was a central part of the Butler formula, with religious education and worship being required in all state schools.

This tripartite system served the ‘baby boomers’ born in the latter part of the war and thereafter, with the national ‘bulge’ of schoolchildren beginning to enter secondary schools in the middle of the 1950s. At this time, ‘democratic’ arguments spread widely among parents, especially mothers, who opposed the Eleven Plus and demanded that all children should receive quality education similar to that provided by grammar schools. Interestingly, one-fifth of local authorities wished to replace the tripartite system with a single, comprehensive brand of secondary education. Private, fee-paying schools, of course, operated their own selection processes in which wealth, family connections and tradition held important sway. By the mid-1960s, majority public opinion had shifted toward comprehensive schooling, which was favoured by the Labour government headed by Harold Wilson. Most local authorities duly followed this route but a minority continued with grammar schools alongside comprehensives. The new schools borrowed features from both secondary moderns and grammar schools, operated internal streaming (known as ‘sets’) that reflected pupils’ varying academic aptitude, and introduced new subjects such as social studies.

As the years passed and the ‘bulge generation’ moved through secondary education, so the ‘trend’ for remaining in advanced education grew. Between 1961 and 1963, a committee chaired by Lord Lionel Robbins deliberated on the future provision of higher education. Its findings advocated immediate expansion of undergraduate numbers according to the ‘Robbins Principle’ that ‘higher education should be made available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue it and who wish to do so’ [73]. Hence, in the middle 1960s universities, ‘unlike secondary education, [remained] unassailably to be the province of meritocracy rather than democracy, of aptitude and ability rather than equal provision or even popular demand’ [72]. With meritocracy as the guiding notion, it was assumed that the number of teenagers qualified and wanting to go to university would continue to grow. In the spirit of the Robbins Report, existing universities were expanded, seven new ones created, and colleges of advanced technology were given university status. In later years, this example was followed by teacher training institutions. As more and more young people contributed to the trend for higher education, ‘student life, as a traineeship for middle-class adulthood…was rapidly becoming the norm’ [93].

After two decades of acceleration, the demand for higher education slowed down in the 1970s in response to changes in the labour market and the general health of the economy, as well as the impact of crises of confidence among young people and their parents who came to question whether acquiring a degree was worth it in the long run. University expansion was duly constrained and in 1985, Sir Keith Joseph, Secretary of State for Education and Science, proposed a retrenchment in the size of the higher education sector, as well as an assessment of the relative quality of university research. In Mandler’s view, his paper on The Development of Higher Education into the 1990s was ‘probably the most scorned government document on education policy of the twentieth century’ [122]. Nonetheless, policy determined that financial squeeze followed upon financial squeeze, retiring academics and support staff were not replaced, and university departments were ‘rationalised’.

Surprisingly, the Conservative government switched in the mid-1980s ‘from a policy of restriction to an unprecedented expansion of higher education’ [10]. By the end of the decade, the demand for student places had not only recovered but was growing fast, with ‘new’ students coming ‘from all classes, both genders, [and] all ethnicities, via Access Courses, the Open University, and further education colleges, as well as schools’ [135]. Increasingly, university education was seen not only as a good investment in terms of enhanced life-time earnings but also as a necessary rite of passage toward meaningful employment. The developing ‘knowledge economy’, enmeshed with the ‘learning society’, helped ‘to restore confidence in the economic value of education’ [207], and boosted the cultural expectations surrounding ‘the student experience’.

As well as the question of student numbers, the thorny question of orientating candidates to specific sectors of scholarship and science required attention both in schools and universities. During the 1950s and subsequently, scientific subjects were promoted in secondary schools, with mathematics and physics being favoured for academically minded boys, and biology for girls. The arts and humanities remained popular but were sometimes perceived as being less worthwhile. After taking office in 1979, the Conservative government insisted that it would strive to achieve maximum value from higher education by steering provision of student places ‘in the interests of the national economy’ [165]. Sir Keith Joseph dismissed much of the research output from universities as ‘economically valueless’ and ‘damaging to the spirit of enterprise’ [166]. Consequently, the humanities and social sciences came under political attack, while the so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) were viewed with increasing favour.

Despite this attempt at manipulation, the trend of student demand in the arts and humanities remained strong, especially as more women and mature candidates applied to enter university. Many young people and social scientists argued that a large proportion of jobs now required a degree as an indicator of competence (through a kind of educational triage), but not a degree in a specific subject. Medicine, engineering, dentistry, etc. were obvious exceptions. Regardless of attempts by successive governments to shape the configuration of higher education, science graduates as a proportion of annual totals fell year upon year to reach a low point of 38 per cent in 2012, with a slight increase thereafter. But student choice is a volatile and seemingly unpredictable matter. Mandler notes that, at the time of writing, ‘the fastest growing subjects are [now] all scientific ones, but social studies and creative arts continue to grow at higher than average rates, while business and computer science lag behind. Languages, literature and education, and to a lesser extent history, have declined’ [178]. Only time will tell whether this pattern of demand will hold true in the wake of the employment crisis associated with the Covid 19 pandemic.

Peter Mandler declares that during the decades from mid-century to the 1980s, Britain experienced something of a ‘golden age of social mobility’, whereby ‘many more people from less privileged origins were rising into higher-status occupations’ as a result, in part, of widening opportunities in secondary education and in the growing university sector [189]. However, rates of upward social mobility began to slow toward the end of the century despite increasing opportunities for women associated with their greater educational achievements. Downward social mobility was also in evidence ‘especially for men, both because occupational change had slowed and because income inequality was being used by the privileged to maintain their privilege at the very top’ [200]. The stark conclusion must be that, despite universal secondary schooling and mass higher education, a range of factors, ‘often linked to family background, continued to play the same role they had always done in reproducing the social order – in effectively maintaining social inequality’ [181].

After a brief epilogue, the main body of Mandler’s text ends at page 215. The remaining two fifths of the volume is devoted to an array of supporting material, including eighteen graphs and diagrams, ninety pages comprising 950 notes (many of which have multiple components), and a bibliography of more than 700 items. Some readers may question the precision of the title since the book excludes education in Scotland and makes only slight reference to the situation in Wales. Others may have welcomed more frequent references to fee-paying, private schools operating beyond the state system. Without doubt, all will appreciate Mandler’s masterly skill in marshalling evidence and developing argument in his impressive volume that explores a remarkably complex topic and may be seen as a veritable a tour de force. They may smile at his final remark regarding the uncertain future of British state education: ‘After all, history is full of surprises’ [215].


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