The myth of meritocracy and education

Meritocracy is the idea of opportunity for all regardless of background but based on ability. Sounds fair? Maybe not…

Both sides of the political spectrum in the past 20 years have hailed meritocracy as the goal for social mobility. A meritocratic society is said to be one in which if you have the ability, given the right opportunities you will achieve your goals – whatever they may be. Policy and social changes to attempt to make society more meritocratic have included widening access to education and offering more choice in marketising public services . If everyone has the same opportunity then it’s an equal playing field, right?

The widening of opportunity for all treats each social interaction and decision as a calculating decision with no concern for the individuals past experience and background. Rational choice theory describes this calculating move through life’s decisions. In contrast social and cultural reproduction says that we are products of our background and past experience which influence all future decisions and paths, regardless of an ‘equal’ meritocratic playing field. For example, someone who comes form a background where higher education and achievement is seen as the norm will continue these life trajectories as business as usual. Someone from a background of non participation in education will treat these exploits as new and alien to them and there background. So, does a level playing field for all create a meritocracy? Or do we need different policy and social interactions to meet different needs?

Here’s an infographic to contrast the ideas.

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