The Myth of Educational Opportunity

The conventional wisdom in the education debate is that all children should be given an equal opportunity to gain the most appropriate education and equal access to the best schools and colleges.

We do not like privilege and we do not like failure. But children have a range of ability and schools are of many kinds and qualities.  And in any event is such an ambition useful for our society?

In pursuit of this aim we have built a public education system that is supposed to ensure all children an equal opportunity to gain the best education available.  The only problem is that we can’t agree among ourselves what the best education really is. We keep worrying about the fact that the more academic tracks through education to university seem to be populated by the children of middle-class parents.  Politicians cry out that educational institutions must ensure that a fair number of children from less advantaged backgrounds have access. What they really mean is from what we used to call the working class. And as soon as one says that, one realises that this is not just a question of appropriate education, but of appropriate class.

This whole development is based on the notion that the distribution of intellect and aptitude across the population is normal. That there are a large number of disadvantaged intelligent children just waiting to emerge from the poorer sections of our population. All we have to do is to design a school system which enables these children to emerge and take their place in the more academically biased institutions and we shall have increased the intellectual capital and fulfilled the aspirations of otherwise disadvantaged children.  The key word here is choice rather than ability.

On the other hand, the parents of all kinds of disadvantaged children are encouraged to think that high education attainment is possible for all and success will be rewarded by entry into the middle class.  They must be given their chance. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is quite different.

There is no vast untapped reservoir of highly intelligent children deprived of a good education because of their circumstances.

The reason for this is that the past three or four generations have witnessed a comprehensive harvesting of talent and intelligence through a system which was broadly meritocratic.  We have opened the Universities to all who could possibly benefit from such an education.  We have even increased the number and range of such institutions.  Once all these young people became intellectually emancipated adults they graduated into the middle classes.

It is an undeniable fact that our performance in life is not just determined by our upbringing and our education; there is such a thing as breeding.

Intelligent parents are very likely to have naturally intelligent and gifted children. This is so self evidently true that it hardly needs to be stated but it does seem to be frequently forgotten.  Of course the children of middle-class parents have access to a home environment, which is likely to exhibit strong educational biases.  There will be books and pictures and music around the home. Life will include many cultural activities. There will also be fluid communications, competitive sport, and interesting hobbies. All these constitute the life of the middle classes. By which I certainly mean all those in professional, artistic, managerial and entrepreneurial activities as well as many highly skilled technicians.

This is not in any way to denigrate those who are less intellectually endowed. But the reality is that such individuals will have lower potential and will tend to occupy an entirely different strata of work and attainment. Unfortunately, in Britain this has always been a problem.

We have confused class with educational attainment.

In other countries, for example in Sweden, Japan or Germany, such identification of intellectual accomplishment and artistic talent with a particular class has never been of great significance. In fact these are societies that have lavished resources, care and attention on the education of those who are likely to be performing more mundane activities throughout their lives.

The 1944 education act in Britain was supposed to entrench the view that the education system would be appropriate for all the different levels of intelligence and dexterity obvious in the population. The only problem was that insufficient money was put into technical and modern education and those who were placed in such schools were deemed to be failures.

When there was universal selection at 11 years of age, the common parlance was that those who went on to grammar school succeeded and those who did not failed.  This meant that so many children who should have been valued and properly educated were stigmatised and consigned to second-rate schooling. It is no wonder that there has been severe prejudice against selection since then. However, in a meritocratic society, such as ours now is, selection at all ages is inevitable.

The Purposes of Education.

Let me turn now to consider the purpose of education. We have to ask ourselves why, as a corporate society, do we spend public money on the education of all our children.  We do not expect, in general, parents to pay the cost of educating their children. We take it on ourselves as members of this society to pay for such education through taxation. I know that there is a large privately funded education system. It is true that the parents of about seven per cent of boys and girls pay large sums to have them educated in public schools. However, this does not invalidate the basic purpose of a compulsory state education system.

I take my definition of education from Correlli Barnett. It exists for three clear purposes. Every society has within it a huge pool of skills. These include many manipulative skills, but they also include the skills of analysis and deduction as well as linguistic and communication skills, in fact almost everything that contributes to being a grown up adult is part of a skill bundle which we need to acquire in order to take our place in society.  Furthermore, there are also a huge number of special skills that must be learned by some members of each new generation.

It is the first function of education to ensure that every young person acquires as much of these skills as they need. And for those who aim for particular activities, be it brain surgery or repairing cars, they should have the necessary skills to do the job properly.  As well as maintaining this skill set, every society seeks through education to extend and advance skills of every kind.

The second function of education concerns the accumulated knowledge base of the society. The acquisition of knowledge of itself is not education since such knowledge was always largely contained in books and now is available on the Internet. Knowledge is important in education because it constitutes the fuel on which we can develop our skills. Also a certain amount of memorised knowledge is important in undertaking many of the functions of adulthood. Above all, knowledge adds to our personal world view and enables us to participate in whatever part of society we choose to inhabit.

The third purpose of education is to teach, propagate and embed the cultural story and structure of the society in question. For many centuries in Britain this was the province of the Christian Church which is indeed the foundation of our legal system, our politics, and our customs. Nowadays the cultural stories of Britain are much more diverse but nevertheless extremely important. At their heart is a spiritual as well as an altruistic imperative.

If we do not behave with each other in society in predictable and acceptable ways, eventually our society will decay in the face of pure and unrestrained self-interest.

It is the experience of humanity that a secure moral order within a society cannot exist simply by a combination of laws and customs but requires much more.  There has to be a sense of history; there has to be a sense of place; there has to be a response to mans innate spirituality, and there has to be a sense of altruism.  All of this will spring from what I refer to as the corporate moral order of the society in question. This really is the most important of the three elements of education.

There is a school of thought among teachers and other educationalists that it is not the place of education to inculcate a particular model of society.  Religion, philosophy and politics should be taught objectively without value judgment so that in the end children will make up their own minds.  This is profoundly mistaken.  Only at the highest levels of intellectual attainment are we equipped to make such choices. Until then we have to conform.

We have to be taught about the society in which we live and trained to function within it.  Education must have a clear moral agenda and teachers must be committed.  This view is clearly shared by all the faith schools.  If the correct way of dealing with questions of relationship, law, property and social behavior do not spring from the activities of children at school they will be unlikely to be learned at a later stage.

Education is not a kind of intellectual supermarket where every idea and principle is set out for the individual to choose. 

It must aim to pass on to the next generation all that we have plus all that will be added to in skill, knowledge and moral welfare by the next generation.  And this can only happen within a clear and universally accepted framework.  This is why we all pay for education and since we pay we must insist that every child gets the education appropriate for his or her ability and aptitude.

The only way to do that is by rigorous selection. Choice should have almost no part in this.
It follows that if these objectives are the purpose of education then the idea of education as a self actualising experience for the individual boy and girl has no place in such a system.  We do not pay for children to go to school so that they may become, in some sense, nice people or self-satisfied personalities. We pay for them to go to school so that they will become good citizens and contribute through their skills and knowledge to the forwarding of society. Of course by so doing they will be able to aspire to a paid occupation be that as a salaried professional, a business man, an engineer or a worker in a agriculture or some other activity.  In all of these they will need to exercise what they have learnt through education.

I am also not arguing that education for its own sake is not important. In many countries where free education is not readily available you will find that parents are prepared to make huge sacrifices to have their children educated. That is because they understand that education is a necessary precondition for a reasonably worthwhile and economically independent adult life.

So when we look at the question of how we should select boys and girls for particular educational experiences and for specific educational training, there is in my view no debate.

We have clearly chosen to be a meritocracy. We have rejected aristocracy and autocracy and we certainly reject forms of absolute political rule.

We choose some form of democracy for our politics that will involve some system of election at all levels. Elections are a very imperfect way of ensuring that people with the correct knowledge and skills are placed in positions of power and influence.  It is therefore widely accepted that there has to be a system of judging between individuals to ensure that the correct choices are made about who should fill important roles and positions at all levels of business, government and all other economic activities.  In many cases this is so self-evident as to hardly need debating. Surgeons need to be trained to do their job, pilots need to be trained to fly airplanes, lawyers need to be trained to plead in court, and gas fitters need to be trained to ensure that we don’t blow ourselves up. We clearly subscribe to the view that every effort should be made to put the right person in the right position or activity.  So why then do we shy away from this when we should be applying it to our children’s education?

What is so very wrong about systems of selection, which place children in the most appropriate educational stream.  

A meritocracy should be designed to make all those selections as objective as possible.  I would repeat ‘as possible’ because such objectivity is not an absolute by any means.  In the first place the middle classes will always seek to maintain the positions they have achieved for their children and this is likely to produce adults with the same or similar skills. It is no surprise that the children of one generation of doctors may very well be excellent doctors themselves when their turn comes. In fact traditional society entrenched such views and the blacksmith and the bailiff passed their skills on to their children who inherited their business.

I would therefore argue that given the purpose of education and the need for a meritocracy to ensure that the best people rise to the positions that society needs, systems of objective selection must be in place to ensure both success in the short-term and development and growth in the long. We should pledge ourselves to ensure that all children achieve what is in them and  are thus provided with the appropriate education to do so. That is what equality ought to be about and it ought to be so irrespective of whether the individual is middle-class or working class or aristocratic or immigrant or poor.

To be a successful democratic and meritocratic society we should be single-minded in making selections for educational establishments as openly and objectively as possible.

There should be no bias as to class, sex, race or any other special pleading.  Whatever the place, be it academic, professional, technical, social, or manual, it should be offered on the basis of clear and unambiguous competitive selection.  And the more challenging an activity or function may be the harder it should be for an individual to attain it.

I have watched and even participated in the steady decline in  standards in all sectors of education in Britain since the nineteen sixties, if this is to be reversed the educational establishment must learn from the public schools which have no problem with selection nor with teaching within a clear world view.  They have continued to respect and honour the abilities and performance of their pupils.  This can only return to the state education system if objective selection is restored.

About Richard Graham



  1. oswaldinho says

    You say, “I have watched and even participated in the steady decline in standards in all sectors of education in Britain since the nineteen sixties”

    On what do you base this comment on? Educational achievement has risen year on year over many years. More people getting better grades to a higher level. The myth that education is in steady decline is indeed that- a myth. Ask any teacher and they will tell you that they are far better trained, equipped and motivated than they used to be. They obviously have complaints about aspects of the system but this will always be the case.

    My family is a case in point; my mum left school with no qualifications whatsoever (apart from a typing certificate) and my dad left with 1 o’level. Both are bright and both would have done better today but my mum failed selection in the 11+ and was thus consigned to a secondary modern education where there was no ambition or expectation for girls to succeed whilst my dad was allowed to under-achieve in a way he wouldn’t be today by schools conscious of their position in school league tables.

    I am all for streaming within schools so that different levels of ability can be educated together but this is on a subject by subject basis. To separate and consign children to a sub standard education based upon an arbitrary selection process is divisive, short sighted and damaging to the prospects of both the individual and the country.

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