Comment Writer Thomas Barry explores the myth of meritocracy highlighted through the recent release of GCSE and A-Level exam results, arguing that meritocracy is great in theory, but hard to see in the education system today
The run-up to Results Day is infamously nerve-racking. The exams flush back into memory, you remember the tiny mistakes, the essays you should have written better, the fact you did not actually write your name in block capitals as the paper explicitly expressed. Yet you cannot do anything. You can only wait and hope. Like last year, students this year did not have formal exams but teacher assessment grades. It has been a mixed bag: some have been jubilant to be awarded grades that reflect them at their best, but others not so much with the jaws of inequality snatching a rise in grade disparity between Independent and Comprehensive schools, leaving a crude scar in the shape of the North/South divide.
In my eyes, the principle of meritocracy is good. It rewards determined people who utilise their talents to become genuinely successful, whilst at the same time not sacrificing the chances of others. Those in influential or leadership positions acquire it through effort, experience, talent and an understanding of the roles below; not simply because they had money to begin with, or their family had a powerful name. Whereas aristocracy invariably leads to poor leadership with an out-of-touch understanding of the real world, I think meritocracy creates knowledgeable leaders who know precisely what challenges everyday people face. Yet, the UK’s meritocratic education system has failed.
The problem with the education system, which the results of this year are shedding light on, is that we value the ability of individual students based solely on their grades. The mindset towards grades has always been this: the student with the higher grades is more intelligent than the one with lower grades. Each year, grades are hoped to very gradually go up to demonstrate how the newer year is more intelligent than the last whilst at the same time not sabotaging the qualifications of those from a few years ago. This system collapses, however, when so many students get A* and A grades in one year that it essentially becomes the national average and because students’ intelligence and deemed potential is measured through such grades it has become difficult to work out how abled each student genuinely is.
Unfortunately, the deeper situation is even worse, in the form of inequality of opportunity, which the grades of this year have demonstrated with a student in the North East being 8-10% less likely to get the same grades as a student in the South East. As noted by Russell Hobby, chief executive of the TeachFirst charity, students in poorer regions often lack the support and equipment needed to reach their academic potential. In contrast to this, students in wealthier areas such as the South East have far superior support and equipment which help considerably in their academic potential. For students in wealthier families, this advantage is taken further by studying at private schools and acquiring the services of private tutors who can help the student tick the boxes of the mark scheme. For all three brackets, each student of equal merit will have varied grades. The student in the poorer region will receive an unreflective C or B grade, the student in the wealthier region will earn a reflective A grade and the wealthy student will be given an A*. Such differences are not down to the poorer student being naturally less intelligent, determined or academically abled than the wealthier student, but instead that the former has been minimally enabled and the latter has been enabled to the fullest extent.
So, clearly, the meritocratic nature of the education system has not just failed this year but has been unfortunately failing consistently for years.
However, all is not lost. I believe that there is time and that we should seize the opportunity grade inflation has illuminated to make something positive out of the situation. The education system must be reformed. Perhaps by shifting the teaching and learning aspect of education away from solely passing an exam. Imagine if, for example, essay-based subjects were not taught to pass the requirements of a restrictive yet vague mark scheme, but instead by emphasising how any good essay can be influential or that being able to write a good essay has a vast array of transferable skills: reading and understanding complex texts to glean valuable information, utilising knowledge to help construct a convincing argument, being able to utilise the English language to be convincing and so on. This could be furthered through career workshops with work experience weeks to give students an optional and slight ‘foot in the door’. Through these changes, students across the country could gain so much more out of their subjects, be actually passionate about studying and have a better understanding of what they would like to pursue career-wise.
Ultimately, education is a basic right that everyone deserves to have and every student should have equal opportunities to maximise their potential. This should never be down to geographical luck or wealth. These conditions have led to the flawed meritocracy within our education system we see today, with a misled view that grades directly demonstrate intelligence. Whilst the grade inflation this year is severe, and has made the academic futures of those students uncertain, it has shown the urgent need for reform and this must not be ignored.
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