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THE CRISIS OF THE MERITOCRACY

THE CRISIS OF THE MERITOCRACY

The crisis of the meritocracy: Britain’s transition to mass education since the Second World War

PETER MANDLER, 2020

Oxford: Oxford University Press

361pp, hardback, £25, ISBN 9780198840145

Cambridge historian Peter Mandler has a fundamentally optimistic story to tell about the growth of universal education in Britain over the last seventy years and one can sense his stubborn resistance to any more sceptical interpretation on almost every page of this dense and impressive history. Since the close of the ‘people’s war’ in 1945, Mandler argues, we have witnessed the rise of mass education, initially at secondary level, and more recently in higher education where participation rates currently nudge New Labour’s much vaunted promise of 50 per cent. Contrary to established narratives that have put this development down to economic growth or significant pieces of legislation, Mandler identifies the expansion of educational opportunity as the result of a constantly shifting interplay of demand and supply that has reinforced ‘the deepening compact between the individual citizen and the state which came with formal democracy and the idea of equal citizenship’. Education continues to be seen by the public as one of the ‘decencies’ of life’; hence the inexorable rise in demand for what Mandler often refers to as ‘more and better’.

In short, the people (sort of) did it themselves.

On the face of it, this is an attractive proposition, yet one that is oddly tricky to grapple with, given the mass of contradictory or partial information available to us concerning what the ‘people’ have wanted at any given historical moment or, indeed, who exactly the people are. Mandler deliberately employs ‘a promiscuous array of methods and sources’, sifting through realms of evidence from official publications, interviews, academic studies, pollsters’ findings and demographic surveys in an attempt to clarify the complex relationship between government policy, public demand and social change. This promiscuity encourages him to prosecute his subsidiary critique of the alleged tendency of academic disciplines to work in unhelpful silos. Economists and social scientists, he charges, have paid scant attention to educational expansion while educationists and political historians tend to ‘chop up long-term trends into short political segments’ with many on the left falling into a ‘declinist narrative’ in which the failures of a ‘divided’ Labour party feature heavily as a reason for a lack of genuine progress (an analysis Mandler anyway rejects). But we shall return to the problem of we whingeing progressives in a moment.…

Tag Archives: School Wars

Inside the Nation

Of all the reviews so far of School Wars, I am most pleased with this one, in The Nation magazine, by Stefan Collini. It’s an incredibly thoughtful and informative discussion of the state of UK education as well as of my book. Stefan and I will be in discussion at the Cambridge Word Fest later this month on the current state of secondary and higher education.…

School Wars: round up of the reaction so far…………

  Check our some of the reviews/interviews and book related features of the past few weeks. 

Andy Beckett in the Guardian:http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/sep/01/school-wars-melissa-benn-review

Anthony Seldon in the Observer; http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/sep/04/school-wars-education-benn-review

Phil Beadle in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/school-wars-the-battle-for-britains-education-by-melissa-benn-2351229.html

Francis Beckett in The New Statesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/non-fiction/2011/09/education-benn-labour-children

Neil Fletcher in The Camden New Journal: http://www.camdennewjournal.com/reviews/books/2011/sep/books-review-school-wars-battle-britains-education-melissa-benn

Lucy Sherriff interview in Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2011/08/27/melissa-benn-free-schools-and-education_n_938872.html

Terry Wrigley in Socialist Review: http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=11793

Sadie Robinson interview in Socialist Worker: http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=26186

Samira Shackle in The New Statesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/education/2011/10/school-wilshaw-mossbourne

Compass website, comment piece: http://www.compassonline.org.uk/news/item.asp?n=13796

Book related pieces in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/melissabenn

Coming up: interviews and features in: Marianne ( French magazine), Epigram ( Bristol University student newspaper), The Richmond magazine, Red Pepper,  and Utdanning ( Norway’s chief educational journal)  and The Lady magazine. …

Guess who dropped by?

to my signing at Blackwells at Labour Party Conference yesterday? Yes, the great man himself, plus fellow authors Owen Jones and Rowenna Davis….. although I didn’t get a chance to discuss with Ed the merits – or otherwise – of academies and free schools….Of course, that’s why we are still smiling….. …

Keeping faith in comprehensives

Below, a profile/interview in today’s Education Guardian by Peter Wilby.

Taking advantage of the net, and net democracy, I have put in a few corrections and some commentary at the bottom of the piece. Perhaps the Guardian or other newspapers might try this, in print and on line, sometime?

Keeping faith in comprehensives

Melissa Benn still believes the public can see the benefits of the classic comprehensive school system

Education has the potential to create a “common culture” according to Melissa Benn.

Britain doesn’t have many American-style political dynasties, but the Benns are an exception. Three generations have produced a cabinet minister apiece: Tony Benn, once the stuff of bourgeois nightmares but now an octogenarian “national treasure”, is the best-known and his son Hilary, a New Labour minister from 2001, is the most recent. And from the next generation, Emily Benn, Tony’s granddaughter, stood unsuccessfully, aged 20, as a Labour candidate in last year’s general election.…

Latest writing

How politics lost touch with everyday life

Early on in his elegiac study of how our literary and aesthetic past might animate our political future, Marc Stears singles out DH Lawrence’s “wonderful essay” Insouciance, written in 1928, which he believes embodies “the vision that animates this book”. In the essay, Lawrence describes a meeting with two elderly ladies who try to draw him into a conversation about “Benito Mussolini and the potential threat he posed to the world” as he watches two men mow the lawn of the hotel where they are all staying. For Lawrence, “the worst ogress couldn’t have treated me more villainously. I don’t care about right and wrong, politics, fascism… There was a direct sensuous contact between me, the lake, mountains, cherry trees, mowers… All this was cut off by the fatal shears of the abstract word fascism… the little old lady… beheaded me, and flung my head into abstract space.”

It may be difficult for a modern reader to agree with Lawrence that he is the true representative of what he calls “actual living”. But both Lawrence and Stears are trying to make the larger point that it is in our daily life that the most significant experiences reside and that politics is too often unhelpfully broad-brush, arrogantly distant from the things that really matter. At the same time, we are alerted to the central problem of any study that ambitiously seeks to reclaim the values of everyday life. Whose everyday life? Whose values?

Stears is an academic, policymaker (currently director of the Sydney Policy Lab) and former speech writer for Ed Miliband, and it soon becomes clear that his ideas spring from cherished memories of a happy Welsh childhood. Celebrations of such familial and communal values, he argues, can be found in the writings of Lawrence, George Orwell, JB Priestley and Dylan Thomas (particularly in Thomas’s Under Milk Wood), as well as the images of the photographer Bill Brandt and the artist Barbara Jones. Taken together, Stears argues, their work represents a generous if unselfconscious social solidarity that sustained the best of Britishness through the interwar years and the Second World War, and found its apotheosis in the 1951 Festival of Britain: a guiding vision that could once again inspire our fractured nation.

Stears’s quest is interesting and bold, but his attempt to unearth a consistent theme across a medley of early 20th-century literary works and then to apply them to the pressing problems of 21st-century Britain soon becomes fraught – as he acknowledges – with contradictions.…

Latest news & events

A Cold War Tragedy

Melissa will be in conversation with Anne Sebba about her new book, ‘Ethel Rosenberg – A Cold War Tragedy.’

Weds 15th September 2021, 5-6pm, in the Robert Graves Tent at the Wimbledon Book Festival.

More information here.

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