The Meritocracy

Let’s be clear: Inequality in opportunity is wrong and it is a key driver of economic and social instability. Education is an important ingredient in shaping life chances. Arguably independent schools are a key driver for social justice. Conflating meritocracy and the need to have been state school educated is a nonsense.

 Independent schools are not about inherited privilege and unfair advantage. They are simply about excellence in education, for a wide range of people – far wider a range than is ever imagined. There are at least three types of pupil in modern independent schools. All three types have passed some form of selection process. One type is the one we have presented so often in the media, those whose parents can readily afford fees. Two other types we should hear more of, as in many independent schools they are much more common. One is those parents for whom fees are a challenge, who work second and third jobs and who do so because they see potential in their child they wish to realise – such endeavour from parents for their children must surely be part of our meritocratic ideal. Finally, there are the bursary pupils, making up 20% of my school. That group is all about the social justice agenda, providing the opportunity to realise the meritocratic ideal.

 And state schools are not all about social disadvantage either. Many good state schools are oversubscribed, possibly with a very expensive catchment area in terms of house price. It might well be true that cases of genuine social mobility are far more likely to be seen through a bursary award at an independent school rather than navigating tricky admissions policies to successful state schools. What percentage of state admissions appeals come from economically disadvantaged families? Or is that a middle class pastime?

 The future is seeing the essential issue as the provision of a good education for all, not how it is provided. Independent schools have an important role in that. And by seeking areas of partnership and collaboration, where both sectors can work together, innovate and speak on behalf of all pupils we can do much more good than seeking a further opportunity to reignite prejudice.


About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is Headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists.