I had a rare quite night in last Friday and listened to Any Questions on Radio 4. One of the questions that the panellists were asked was whether it was fair for a Conservative MP to comment that the PM and the Chancellor are "two posh boys who don't know the price of milk". The general response of the panellists was that the comment was unfair since we should recognise and reward ability in anyone independently of their social origins.
The view that people should be rewarded on merit is of course unobjectionable. The difficulty in the social sciences has always been, however, in deciding whether a correlation, between say social class during childhood and social class as an adult, reflects merit or the effect of social origins on achievement. Research shows clearly that children from better-off families have a far greater chance of getting on in life than children from poor families. Data on its own is not enough, however, to distinguish between getting ahead on individual merit and getting ahead because of your background and both interpretations have had their advocates.
On the one side there are researchers who consider social inequality to reflect the natural functioning of society. The so-called functionalists propose that different positions in the social order require different skills with education working to select people with the right skills into the appropriate positions. Inequality results from the more demanding positions having greater rewards attached to them in order to provide people with the necessary incentive to invest in gaining the education needed for the role. Education promotes mobility. On the other side there are researchers who perceive society as being a continual struggle by those who have got ahead to maximise their interests. From this perspective, education is an arena in which middle-class families use their resources to try to
make sure that their children get the credentials needed to get the good jobs. This sounds a little bit like Marxism but whereas Marxism understood conflict as revolutionary class struggle, conflict sociology understands the struggle to get on in life as being an everyday activity structured around fairly mundane activities. The different theories have tended to be popular in different subjects. Those subjects, such as geography and sociology, that take into account large-scale social structures have tended to use parental social class as the key factor explaining educational attainment while subjects (such as economics) in which individual characteristics are given most weight have been more favourable to merit based explanations of educational attainment.
The tendency for the level of analysis to influence findings makes some intuitive sense. Listening to Any Questions I can quite believe that if I was introduced to a Dimbleby or a senior politician I could believe that they had got where they were on individual ability. I might even look at the present government with many senior figures who attended the best public schools and believe that running the country is a reward for their individual hard work and effort. At an aggregate level, however, it is difficult to explain local area differences in the level of achievement of primary school children or differences in achievement between children who do and do not receive free school meals as the result of an achievement process. For example, the figure below plots the average point score at Key Stage 2 (Age 11) against the proportion of the working-age population in receipt of state benefits for 6780 local areas in England (what are
termed Middle Super Output Areas) with the line showing a smooth local regression fit to the data points. This shows that the majority of areas in which children have scores above the national average (around 27.5 points) have levels of benefit receipt below the national average. In addition to the significant association between area affluence and children’s achievement on school tests, what also needs to be taken into account is the number of children for whom living in a poor area will mean that they do less well at school than they otherwise might. The plot represents the school results of around half a million children. So a level of achievement that may seem natural for each child individually can at the aggregate level start to look deeply unfair.
In previous generations it may have felt natural to be governed by Prime Ministers who were educated at Eton and Oxford but the privileged backgrounds of many senior figures in today’s government does suggest that progress towards a more meritocratic society may not be as advanced as some politicians suggest. It is a good job then that we have at least some Liberals in the government with Nick Clegg in charge of trying to increase levels of social mobility for young people www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/social-mobility-strategy-launched. The problem with the Liberals is, however, that while they have an idea of inequality they have no idea about poverty and its causes. So at the same time as trying to increase social mobility the Liberals are supporting cuts which will have the greatest impact on the poorest children www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/apr/19/350000-children-will-lose-school-meals. If I could give Nick Clegg some advice, I would say, "Come on, Nick, be brave. Next Cabinet meeting just stand up to those posh boys, like the true public school educated son of a banker we know you are." Oh well, I suppose we'll have to rely on Eric Pickles.