One of the books I read last year that has most stayed with me is Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? In it, Sandel argues that meritocracy is inherently harmful to society and has brought about the huge divides in politics across the western world we’ve witnessed in recent years. The divide between ‘winner’s and ‘losers’ gets ever deeper and, while Sandel acknowledges that this is, in large part, due to inequality, he identifies the attitudes to ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ engendered by meritocracy as the unacknowledged catalyst that has prompted the breakdown of civic life. 

In a system where an aristocracy rule by right of birth, being on the bottom of the pile is not your fault, it’s just the way the world works. Whilst this is obviously unfair the problem with a more meritocratic system is that those on top being to feel they deserve their lofty positions due to their hard work and ability. After all, everyone has an equal chance to make it. The clear but far less palatable implication is that those who at the bottom of the pile also deserve to be there. But, obviously enough, the notion that we all have an equal chance to rise is disastrously wrongheaded. As has been well documented in recent years, some of us have far more advantages than others. Whilst it may be true that the winners have worked hard to achieve their status, some have to work a good deal harder than others to get much less far. Statistically, those born to poorer families tend to stay poor, whereas as more affluent parents get to pass on their advantages to their children. A brief look at the top echelons of society reveals that for the most part these people come from hugely socially advantaged backgrounds. Maybe these people don’t actually deserve the rewards they enjoy? This uncomfortable argument probably goes a long way to explaining why so many professional, middle class folk insist that they are from humble ‘working class’ origins.

But let’s imagine we lived in society where we had magically solved these social injustices. Would meritocracy then be fair? Sandel argues not. He claims that meritocracy is inherently toxic leading to hubris in the ‘winners’ and humiliation for those who lose out. Those who succeed fail to acknowledge the role of luck and good fortune and look down on the grubby masses of the sans culottes as being less deserving.

Education is, by and large, pretty meritocratic. And, although there are plenty who will argue that being white, male, heteronormative and able-bodied provide a significant leg up, those who rise to the top tend to get there through their own efforts rather than by dint of wearing the right school tie. If we agree for the sake of the argument that those who get to the top deserve their success, the result is, all too often, the perception that those who lead are ‘better’ than those who are led. After all, why would MAT CEOs be paid so much if they didn’t deserve it?

Schools are inherently hierarchical organisations with the headteacher and senior team having the authority to compel more junior staff to act in ways that that are considered to be ‘best’. This authority stems from the fact that senior leads deserve to make these decisions because they have risen to the top due to their hard work and ability. More junior staff are encouraged to seek promotion from the ranks of ordinary teachers into leadership, and the further you are promoted, the more rapidly you rise, the ‘better’ you clearly are. Main-scale teachers, especially those who’ve been in post for a number of years, are often seen as having in some way ‘failed’ to gain promotion. In such a system it’s obvious that those who are more able and hardworking get to tell those who are less able and hardworking how to teach.

In Intelligent Accountability I wrote about the difference between surplus and deficit models of school improvement and it seems reasonable to conclude that a great many of the practices in schools which prevent teachers thriving are the product of meritocracy. As a rather naive thought experiment, try imagining an education system in which those who were paid most taught most? In such a system those who were deemed less effective classroom teachers might be selected to go into school administration, both in order to minimise students’ exposure to less-effective teaching as well as to alleviate pressures on those who, through a process of meritocracy, were rewarded by being given the majority of the teaching. Clearly those who taught most would be those considered best suited to make decisions about what and how to teach. If anything that directed teachers’ attention away from teaching would be seen as a task best delegated to those with administrative duties as their time would be a lot less precious.

It would be fascinating to see whether students’ experiences of school would be better, but I’m sure that such a system would result in equally toxic fault-lines to the one we currently exist in. The solution – if there is one – is to strive towards a system where there is less meritocracy. Back in the wider world, maybe we need to move towards a system of Universal Basic Income where we’re given enough to meet our needs regardless of how we choose to spend our working lives; where we choose to do what we do because it’s what we want to do and what we’re good at. (Fascinatingly, Wales is due to pilot a UBI scheme – more to be revealed.) In this brave utopia school leaders would be viewed simply as those who had chosen to lead, and teachers as those who had chosen to spend as much time as possible in the classroom with no value judgements on why these choice had been made.

Foolish? Impossible? Impractical? Maybe. But if we think this state of affairs is worth striving for, then I’d argue that the principles of Intelligent Accountability lay out a rough guide for how to get there:

  • Create trust by being honest and knowledgable
  • Prioritise fairness over equality
  • Allow teachers to earn autonomy
  • Make autonomy meaningful by allowing teachers to do what they think is best.

See here for an overview of these ideas.