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									                MERITOCRACY – SOCIAL MOBILITY, OR MYTH
       “The merit of those who fill a space in the world’s history, who are borne forward, as it were, by the
       weight of thousands whom they lead, shed a perfume less sweet than do the sacrifices of private
       virtue.”

                         (Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), U.S. essayist, poet, philosopher)

        Britain, in the 21st century, is, allegedly, a parliamentary democracy where the
hierarchy in politics and in business and commerce is supposedly based on meritocracy,
that is one in which the whole of society is determined not just by wealth, status and
social position but determined by a process of competition based on clearly recognized
levels of competence and ability and on the assumption that positions of trust,
responsibility and social prestige should be earned, not inherited or assigned. In the
USA most Americans still subscribe to the belief that America is the land of opportunity
and dreams, that you do not have to be wealthy to succeed and that anyone can achieve
anything simply by having general competence and academic and vocational ability,
having the right attitude to work, and having high moral values and integrity.

         But is that really the case? The truth of the matter is that things have not
changed one iota in Britain during the last 30 or 40 years, certainly not in the last
decade. Despite the political insistence on equality of access to education and education
facilities to enable those from poorer backgrounds to become more socially mobile
through a meritocratic system, large numbers of people still fall by the wayside.

         I could not find a quotation on the subject of meritocracy and had to settle for one
on the subject of merit, which is close. However, there is a notion, primarily among
politicians who have achieved more than a modicum of success in their political career
and perhaps among those who have progressed to the top of their particular profession
over the last 20 or 30 years that if people are given the academic opportunity they can
progress as far and as quickly as anyone else. I get the feeling that this is based on the
belief that if they have succeeded, having possibly come from a humble background,
then it automatically means it is possible for anyone to scale the same pinnacles.

        The fact is, as we all know, that this is simply not the case in any career or
profession for the fundamental reason that whilst we might all aspire to the highest
positions within companies and organizations, even in politics, we all cannot be leaders,
directors or senior managers because there is no room for such an inverted pyramid
structure in business, in commerce or indeed in politics.

       The concise oxford dictionary defines ‘meritocracy’ as, for example, “government
by persons selected according to merit in competition”. When I read that definition I
knew immediately that the notion of meritocracy is, fundamentally, flawed bordering on
bunkum for the simple reason we all know that most politicians in most countries
throughout the world are not the best people to lead or to take decisions on our behalf
and that most decisions they make or take are in their own interests first and foremost
and others second. I wonder if anyone, anywhere, disagrees. As Plato suggested,

       “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are
       dumber.”

                         (Plato (428 – 348BC), Greek Philosopher)
       Therefore, I believe it is reasonable to assume that those who reach the top of
organizations do so not just on their known or even perceived merits and their academic,
professional or vocational qualifications and abilities but because they most probably
had contact with and the support of people of power and influence, had knowledge of
how best to succeed in pushing oneself forward and, are, perhaps, beholden to that
same group of people on a ‘quid pro quo’ basis.

        However, to return to the subject in hand; meritocracy carries the additional
baggage of social mobility, the notion that people can in fact move from a disadvantaged
or even very disadvantaged background to the dizzy heights of wealth, power and
influence provided that they can gain a sound education and achieve academic
qualifications to enable them to move upwards. However, that is not often the case and
the majority of those who succeed come from middle-class professional parents and
higher-class wealthy families where private education can be purchased as necessary
and that is why the professions are dominated by the same social classes.

       I also suspect that a great many people remain in the same socio-economic
banding as when they were born and raised and that, in fact, only a very small
percentage of those from the lowest quintile or even the two lowest quintiles in the
economic structure of British society actually manage to move upwards more than one
rung. This proves that social mobility, certainly in Britain, is something that has, perhaps
deliberately, eluded the ruling political classes for centuries and they have done little or
nothing to rectify that situation and achieve a greater degree of equality.

         Meritocracy and social mobility are often associated with providing academic
opportunity, that is access to schools, all forms of facilities and equipment and materials
in primary and secondary education that enable people, and perhaps more especially
those who are academically minded, to increase their potential to progress to degree
qualifications and scale the ladders of both wealth and mobility. But that too is a myth
and it is still those who have the money who remain at the top of the pile.

         In Britain the notion of increasing opportunity by standardizing education began
in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with the introduction of the Comprehensive school, by
a Labour government, which was designed to replace the long-standing and successful
Grammar School and Secondary school system of secondary education, where schools
offered the same subjects and the same or a similar level of education intended to prove
that everyone could gain academic qualifications and progress to University.

        In truth that has been proven not to be the case and instead of increasing social
mobility, based on meritocracy, there are still hundreds of failing children and
comprehensive schools, mainly in poorer inner-city areas and those areas where
unemployment is high and expectations tend to be low; added to which a recent
OFSTED report from the autumn of 2006 stated that 25 per cent of primary schools
failed their inspections and, further, 20 per cent of children leaving primary school were
unable to read and write sufficiently to progress to the secondary education syllabus.

        In fact, during the tenure of the latest Labour government in the first decade of
the 21st century, with a remit, according to the words of the Prime Minister of replacing
the elite establishment system of government by meritocracy through improving
“Education, education, education”, there are now fewer children from poor backgrounds
going to University than there were when the government came to power in 1997.
       This may be because of the introduction of University fees but also, I suspect it is
because the state education sector, although it has received increasing amounts of tax-
payers money to improve the system, is consistently failing to deliver, that whilst offering
a supposed equality of opportunity by equal access to and equality of facilities it does
not mean everyone performs equally and students from low-income families still struggle
to achieve qualifications and still fail to join a profession. A major part of the problem is
the socio-economic background of individual pupils coupled with the general level of
academic qualification and intelligence of parents together with the ability of a child to
learn and to want to learn in order to progress.

       It could also mean that, perhaps, some of the teachers in the state education
system are not as capable or not as committed as those who work in the selective public
school system; and, it seems that a degree of equality has only been achieved by
reducing academic standards thereby replacing meritocracy by mediocrity.

        The real situation is that there are still many thousands of children leaving full-
term state primary and secondary education not only without a clutch of academic
qualifications from the almost worthless GCSE examinations but actually unable to read,
write and express themselves. Given that our industrial and manufacturing base, in
which it was possible for less academically capable children to gain employment, has
continued to disappear over the last decade although the decline started two or three
decades ago, what opportunity do they have to improve their social mobility through
meritocracy.

         Indeed, the loss of the Grammar school system of selection, in many parts of the
country, is not only a tragedy for meritocracy and for the possibility of increased social
mobility it has actually reduced the possibility of children from poorer backgrounds
progressing not only into much higher education but also into higher-paid employment
thereby increasing their chances of increased social mobility. I wonder if this is a case of
political indifference, complacency or a case of political and business paralysis.

        It can be suggested that since many people presently in higher levels of politics,
industry and commerce and academia admit to receiving a Grammar school education,
which allegedly helped them to move into higher levels of education and onto University,
it begs the question why do politicians eschew discussion on the merits of a selective
education system when, for so many decades, it worked and was seen to work.

        The simple fact of life is that throughout life we are selected, promoted or elected
based on our ability, in one form or another, to meet the demands or requirements of a
particular position, level of responsibility or representation in, for example, politics, the
performing arts, sporting prowess in athletics, football or tennis, musical ability using a
particular instrument or instruments and for managerial positions and directorships in
companies and organizations, so why not selection for types of schools and education
establishments based on general academic ability?

       Not to labour the point but any education system should be concerned not solely
with the concept of imparting knowledge for academic purposes but with helping to
shape and improve the level of vocational and professional attainment of successive
generations so that the future existence of that society is strengthened through
knowledge and understanding, and in the process the general social, economic and
academic standards are gradually raised to a higher level.
        The only way to improve the lot of those from poorer backgrounds in the lowest
one or two quintiles in British society, and those less academically capable, is by
ensuring that there will always be employment opportunities to enable them to accept
personal responsibility; and, where wages are low, the only solution is for government to
raise the personal allowance to a level, a figure of at least £10,000 seems reasonable, at
which there is a greatly reduced need for people to apply for all forms of government
social benefits, which do little more than create a dependency culture.

        Of course there are a few who manage to achieve a substantial leap on and up
the ladder scale of society, but more often than not it is achieved through a combination
of factors such as choosing the right career and profession, being in the right place at
the right time, having a succession of mentors who believe in the ability of their juniors
and subordinates, marrying into a wealthy and influential family or perhaps even being
one of those 1 in 13 million on whom fortune smiles by winning a substantial sum on
games of chance including the lottery.

         The facts are that moving up the social ladder is very difficult even when a
meritocratic system is in operation and indeed it varies from country to country based on
the structure and strata of society. Where there are enormous gaps between the rich
and the poor, for example the UK and the US, and where there are still systems in place
that are based on titles, privilege and land-ownership, clearly the UK, it is much more
difficult to move upwards than it is in a less structured and stratified society in, for
example, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France.

        The result – increasing numbers who are reliant on the state for all forms of
social handouts, such as unemployment benefits, child benefits, child tax credits, tax
credits and housing benefits, in order to exist. However, those who exist in such a
fashion in fact provide the roll model for children living on the same large council housing
estates and thus the cycle of ignorance and lack of opportunity is perpetuated.

        In Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway the provision of
sound social policies and a generous system of social benefits are perceived to be and
are seen as more equal and more democratic, and, because their monarchies are
smaller and not feted as much as in Britain they are seen to be more meritocratic and
social mobility is that much greater than in Britain.

        That is why inequality, not just in access to private and public schools, to any and
all forms of academic and vocational aids and to colleges of further and higher education
but also the income and wealth and general ability of parents, plays a big part in social
mobility, and that is why the gap between the rich and the poor in Britain continues to
increase driven, in part, by a state education system that simply does not deliver
opportunity for meritocracy and then social mobility. It is difficult to understand why only
a few succeed with academic courses and why so many, in the order of 40 per cent, still
leave secondary education without any academic qualifications.

        Further, the private education, or independent public school system, persists and
those who can afford to send their children to fee-paying schools will continue to do so to
provide them with an increased opportunity of academic and then career success. Thus
there can never be a meritocratic system that allows everyone to achieve the same
level, because it is impossible, and as a consequence there are still many who will be
left behind now and in the future.
        Besides, more than one survey indicates that those children who go to
independent private schools are still the ones who increasingly end-up in the top jobs in
all walks of life and the professions in Britain; in fact the majority of people in politics, the
legal professions, higher levels in banking and finance, medicine and the media were
and are educated in private schools and also went onto University.

       So despite the efforts of those who insist on everyone receiving the same basic
primary and secondary education in Britain, through the state comprehensive school
system, they have in fact introduced even greater inequality by quashing the possibility
of upward social mobility of children from poor backgrounds through meritocracy.

        Indeed, a survey by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
concluded that, in a comparison of 8 advanced industrial nations Norway, Denmark,
Sweden and Finland followed by Germany and Canada had the highest rates of social
mobility and the UK and the USA were at the very bottom, that whilst social mobility in
the USA is steady in Britain it is still declining and, the primary reason is the divisive
education system that allows children from wealthier families to benefit from selective
and better education facilities in fee-paying private or public schools.

       Indeed, general inequality throughout Britain has increased over the last decade
because people in the professions and in the City have managed to introduce various
schemes that increase their salaries and bonuses whilst finding ways of holding down
the pay of those at the poorest levels in society. This issue is exacerbated by the fact
that the incomes of the highest paid chief executives and managing directors of
companies is now in the order of 100 and 700 times the salary of the lowest paid worker
leading to even greater levels of poverty.

        And government has not helped in the least by refusing to introduce a higher
level rate of taxation for those paid 6-figure salaries and more and by down holding the
personal allowance at a very low level thus penalizing the poorest the most. What the
government has failed to understand and appreciate is the fact that where there is the
greatest disparity in a society then that is when and where the level of crime tends to
increase. Therefore, it is paramount to address the question of the increasing gap
between the rich and the poor in the UK and make a concerted effort to redress the
balance by social policies, not government handouts that ease the situation.

        However, it is not just Labour government’s who are responsible for decimating
the Grammar school system in Britain; that dubious honour belongs to one Margaret
Thatcher who, as a Conservative Education Secretary, closed more Grammar schools
than any other political party effectively suppressing meritocracy and the rise in social
mobility that began in the late 1950’s. It seems that her decisions have played a very big
part in actually suppressing rather than encouraging social mobility; it is almost a case of
now that I have achieved a quantum leap up the social ladder and also achieved
success in my profession I will now reduce the possibilities for future generations.

        Any future Conservative government would do well to re-visit this issue and
determine how best to re-introduce the Conservative notion of meritocracy by the re-
introduction of selection and the Grammar school system. A failure to do so would mean
that the Conservative hierarchy and administration are all in favour of maintaining the
‘status quo’, that is opportunity and social mobility only being made available to those
who can afford to send their children to private fee-paying public schools.
         In February 2007 the government Skills Minister, Phil Hope, suggested the
government wants “every 16 to 18 year-old to take advantage of the huge variety of
education and training available to them”, and not end up in, “low-paid, dead-end work”.
Those are very commendable sentiments but, given that our industrial and
manufacturing base has continued to disappear under this government over the last
decade and jobs are still being outsourced to China and India it begs the obvious
question what jobs does the minister suggest young people should aspire to? How do
politicians expect people to assume responsibility for themselves in paid employment
when job opportunities have disappeared and been exported abroad?

        It is a fact of life that we need people trained and qualified to be doctors, nurses,
dentists, solicitors, policemen, teachers and firemen, but those professions do not create
or generate wealth unless they are involved in research work; and, we need
administrators in national and local government but they too do not generate income,
rather they spend the monies taken from taxation from the local community.

       We also need electrical, electronic and mechanical engineers, chemists of all
persuasions and we need all types of designers; but, we definitely do not need countless
numbers of sportsmen and women, we do not need thousands of pop stars and models
and we do not need thousands of media people. But the simple fact is that we have
more than enough in all those areas and, unfortunately and regrettably, they appear to
be the role models of today’s youngsters for the fundamental reason that they are the
professions that earn the most money in the shortest space of time. What we in fact
have developed, over the past 3 decades, is the ‘have it all now culture’ totally based on
the short-term desire and effort to provide very high returns.

       However, we must accept that employment, and employment opportunities, is
demand-driven and for the vast majority of children and school-leavers they will never
aspire to be world-class sportsmen and women, they will never achieve international
recognition as a pop star, an actor or a model nor will they achieve recognition in the
media that they so obviously desire and that is leading to increased frustration.

       That is why I re-iterate that the UK needs a national industrial policy to determine
areas for investment and what jobs will be available in the future, otherwise UK Plc will
become an offshore theme park for Europe and an example of how not to do things.

       Meritocracy has also been undermined, to some degree, by the increasing
concentration on ‘networking’ which itself is based on the belief that it is more a case of
‘who you know and not what you know’ that gets you either to an interview appointment
or actually in employment and, of course, nepotism still rules in many companies and
organizations and more especially at the higher levels of business and politics.

        Much of this form of cronyism starts in some Universities where young people,
males in particular, join with other ‘like-minded’, wealthy and very socially mobile people
in various clubs and cliques some based on sporting activity others on various excesses
associated with having a wild and sociable time studying and this connection, and
influence, continues in industry, commerce and in politics. It is not wrong to form such
clubs and relationships, all part of the process of ‘networking’, but it continues on
throughout life and employment where those who wear the old school or university or
even club tie find that they have no problems gaining employment, despite any obvious
shortcomings or failures, if and when they lose a position.
       Nonetheless, there are a number of management fads, introduced over the last
two or three decades, that have reduced the opportunity for people to climb the
corporate ladder or at the very least increase their chances of social mobility. They are
management programmes of delayering and downsizing that reduced junior and middle
management positions, and when coupled with business re-engineering, outsourcing
and resource re-allocation programmes that transferred job opportunities to other parts
of the world they necessarily placed pressure on what is often referred to as middle-
class and white-collar professionals.

        Another aspect of the last 30 years has been the increasing loss of our industrial
and manufacturing base, areas of industry that used to provide opportunities for
employment for many who were not academically minded in geographical areas like
south Wales, the Midlands, the north-west, the north-east and Glasgow mainly in heavy
and light engineering work and sometimes associated with steel production and ship-
building and in the cotton and woollen spinning, weaving and tailoring industries. With
the loss of job opportunity went the loss of communities and with it the loss of motivation
and mobility and most certainly in the huge ghetto council estates built during the 1960’s
to accommodate many of the people working in industrialized areas.

        The situation has also been exacerbated during the same 30 year period from
the mid to late 1970’s, to some extent, by the increasing numbers of one-parent families
and increasing numbers of children growing up without fathers and without role models.
Children have grown up seeing many males in those same council house estates finish
secondary education without any qualifications, unable to gain work in the immediate
area and unable to travel because of the lack of public transport systems and so sign on
the dole and never work the rest of their lives. In some areas this appears to have
developed into a self-perpetuating process where successive generations have grown
up knowing that opportunities are few and far between and where whole families are
reliant on state benefits.

       In addition, Britain now has some 5 to 7 million, maybe more, people in this
country than it had 1 or 2 decades ago. This level of unfettered immigration is placing
enormous strains on public services like education, health and medical services,
housing, social benefits, transport and, increasingly, on employment opportunities.
Unless we introduce selective control over immigration those stresses could develop,
over time, into increasing social unrest because of increasing levels of unemployment
among the indigenous people and that situation will be the fault of politicians.

        The latest government initiative in education, to extend the school leaving age to
18 and make students remain in some form of education for an additional 2 years, is little
more than a cynical ploy to remove swathes of younger people from the unemployment
register of those in the 16 – 24 age bracket who are referred to as NEETS – Not in
Employment, Education or Training programmes.

        It begs the questions what other training programmes does the government
intend to offer to that group of disaffected 16 - 18 year olds, and more specially those
who are not academically minded, and what happens to those young people when they
reach 18 if they have still not managed to gain relevant and appropriate academic and
vocational qualifications to help them gain employment. When is a UK government and
business leaders going to understand that education and training are paramount to
maintain a skilled and motivated workforce?
        Again, the problem lies with the fact that academic qualifications in UK, the
baseline GCSE standard in particular, have been ‘dumbed-down’ so that no one actually
fails an examination; that is how and why we appear to have many young people
wandering around saying they have 8 or 9 GCSE’s, when in truth it is likely that many
will not be at the actual accepted pass level of grades A to C, which in turn means that
they did not actually pass many examinations but rather they failed to achieve an
acceptable level.

        It would be fairer to children, the system, to academia and to the business world
if we reverted to GCE ‘O’-level style marking where you did not pass an examination
until you reached at least 45% or 50% and where there were limits on the numbers who
passed each examination to avoid devaluing the standard.

         The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the government, with its objective for
50% of children to go to University, the state education system and teachers have raised
the level of expectation too far, too high and too often by indicating that those who go to
University can expect to become managers of sorts and be paid a much higher salary
level than those without a Degree. The fact is that can never be the case because
companies and organizations do not consist of 50% workers and 50% managers; the
ratio is and should be more like 1 in 10 or 1 in 12 meaning only 8 or 10 managers per
100 people, and that is why degree qualifications do not mean a management position.

        Thus in a large organization of 1000 people there should be no more than
between 80 and 100 directors and managers, otherwise the system becomes top heavy
and that can result in decreased productivity; as we used to say in the Royal Navy, a
situation where there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians indicating that there
are too many giving orders and not enough to carry them out. Is this going to lead to
more frustration and increasing emigration from professionally qualified people?

        However, employment, and opportunities for employment, is demand driven and
therefore it is reasonable to suggest that social mobility is tied inextricably to the number
and type of jobs that are available in areas of industry and commerce and more
especially to those who are academically or professionally capable. I suspect that the
majority of people would wish to belong to a system that allows and encourages them to
progress up any corporate ladder based on their own ability. But that might go against
the grain of society in Britain and many might accept that political interference in public
and private enterprise stifles rather than stimulates initiative.

        That is why it is essential that we have a national industrial policy so that the
education system can be geared to helping people to move from full-time education and
into employment, through vocational and practical courses and not just academic
qualifications, to enable and encourage people to become more socially mobile in a
meritocratic system and to assume more responsibility for their future.

        At present, no matter the political, economic and social situation in Britain, it
seems that social mobility and meritocracy have gradually disappeared from British
society, a society in which those that have already reached higher levels have an
increasing amount of the cake and those that do not have much are ending up with even
less leading to an increasing reliance on social benefits from the date of leaving
secondary education until the age of retirement. That is an enormous waste of a nation’s
resources and the situation is creating more losers than winners.
         In business, industry and commerce, politics and sport, in fact in every facet of
life, there are winners and there are losers; in fact for there to be winners it means, by
definition, there must be losers; and, by simple deduction there will always be more
losers than winners. In essence, we appear to be reverting, if indeed we have not
already reverted, to the Victorian societal situation where one was either rich or poor, of
privilege or poverty, there was no ‘middle-class’ and little or no upward mobility between
the two sections of society. Social mobility can only improve if and when a government
makes every effort to improve education and training and job opportunity. Worse, the
situation over social mobility has gradually deteriorated over the last decade even under
a Labour government that was determined to improve meritocracy and social mobility
through “Education, education, education”, but has only achieved alleged improvements
by generally lowering standards whilst also allowing, if that is the right word, companies
to export more and more employment opportunities for the people of this nation leading
to rising levels of unemployment and the associated increasing amount of social
frustration. At some stage politicians will have to ‘get a grip’ of this scenario and deal
with economic problems not just through improving education standards but by the
creation of longer-term sustainable employment opportunities.

       Unlike other European countries we, that is the UK, has failed quite miserably, to
use the growth in global trade and the growing global marketplace to improve the lot of
the poorer levels in society, by raising the personal allowance to a much higher level,
and it has done little or nothing to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, rather,
over the last decade they appear to have exacerbated this growing problem by tinkering
with taxation and dumping the burden of responsibility for public services on the
shoulders of the poorest two quintiles in society, those people with the lowest income
and revenue. In fact the number of people in UK living in poverty or relative poverty,
which is defined and accepted by government and other groups in this area as an
income of less than 60% of the median income, has continued to increase and the
primary reason is because of both direct and indirect levels of taxation. As Margaret
Thatcher allegedly implied when addressing the subject of doing good deeds to others,
       “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he only had good intentions; he had money as
       well.”

                (Margaret Thatcher (1925 - ), British Prime Minister 1979 – 1990)

         That attitude and approach, that appears to be based on the belief in a stratified
society based on wealth and privilege, does not say much for meritocracy or for the
notion of social mobility for the indigenous people of Britain in the future. If that is the
case, and I see no reason to change that opinion, then I am tempted to strongly urge
those indigenous young people born and raised in this country and with vocational and
professional as well as academic qualifications to seek an alternative life to one in
Britain, as it now stands at the beginning of the 21st century, and to emigrate to a country
that will value ability and knowledge and support the notions of meritocracy and social
mobility by not only providing employment opportunities but also the possibility of
progressing and improving social status and not maintain the ‘status quo’.

(5370 words including quotations)

KENNETH ARMITAGE

February 2007

								
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