The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War | Peter Mandler

Peter Mandler
Peter Mandle | Imagem: Historical Association

Britain has never been a meritocracy. Despite the concept’s widely-evoked vision of a ‘fair’ or ‘just’ social order, one where individuals rise or fall according to their ‘talents’ or ‘efforts’, the rise of the meritocracy has continually been scuppered by the perseverance of inherited privilege or democratic pressure. In part, it is meritocracy’s unrealised status that keeps bringing the nation’s political leaders back to the concept, especially in recent decades. Confounded by growing levels of inequality, successive generations of politicians have sought solace in the popular enthusiasm for education as an arbiter of ‘earned’ social status and a marker of individual responsibility, talent and effort. The contemporary moment feels different, however. It is impossible to browse the shelves in a bookshop or visit a news website without stumbling across several volumes or articles decrying meritocracy’s impact on democracy, its role in the populist backlash of Brexit and Trump, or its collusion with the forces of neoliberalism.(1) Beyond the truism that the word ‘meritocracy’ was coined to describe a dystopia and yet has somehow become a positive vision of a ‘classless’ social hierarchy, these accounts all lack a sense of history. Therefore, Peter Mandler’s latest book, The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education Since The Second World War, could not be more timely. History has been neglected in recent debates about meritocracy, largely because education has been neglected by historians. As Mandler makes clear in his opening chapter, for decades historians have been ‘in thrall to political history’ with its ‘electoral turning-points’ and ‘heroes and villains’. Social historians have not done much better. They gave priority to class, with the ‘agencies of the state’ appearing ‘too remote and alien to most people’s daily lives’. Even those historians of education ‘lodged in university departments of education’, Mandler claims, ‘have become just as addicted to the morality play of party politics as the mainstream historians.’ (pp. 8-9) The Crisis of the Meritocracy seeks to reframe our understanding of Britain’s transition to mass education, too often portrayed as occurring relatively late when compared internationally, or as remaining patchy and incomplete. One of the central problems with any history of a concept is where to start. Instinctively, we might use the word ‘meritocracy’ itself as a guide. It first appeared in print in 1956 in articles by the agricultural economist P. Lamartine Yates and the industrial sociologist Alan Fox in the eclectic journal Socialist Commentary. Yet it remains most commonly associated with the publication of Michael Young’s dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy two years later. However, Mandler recognises it would be misguided to place too much significance on the word. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Young did coin the word meritocracy (he was an editorial board member of Socialist Commentary) and described fusing together Latin and Greek words, much to the chagrin of a friend and classical scholar. Reflecting on his book in a new preface published in 1994, Young remarked that ‘the twentieth century had room for the word.’(2) This was because the concept of meritocracy existed long before the word itself. Mandler explores the consequences of this in his second chapter. Here he demonstrates how, from the 1880s onwards, an ideologically diverse group of politicians, policy-makers and intellectuals cohered around a meritocratic position, out of concerns for social justice or national efficiency. While a more democratic vision of common schools grappled with the ‘ladder of opportunity’ in the early twentieth century, this receded into the distance in the aftermath of the Great Depression. In Mandler’s words ‘it would take the enormous social, economic and political changes of the 1940s’ to bring about ‘secondary education for all and raise more practically the questions of what kind of secondary education and for whom.’ (p. 31)

Mandler explores the answers to these questions in Chapter Three. The 1944 Education Act, commonly known as the Butler Act, which required local authorities to provide for all pupils over the age of 11 instruction and training ‘as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities, and aptitudes’, is often a popular starting point for studies of British education. Rather than reflecting the triumph of tripartism as is frequently claimed, Mandler portrays the Act as embodying the tension between the concepts of democracy and meritocracy which runs throughout his narrative. In part, this stems from the fact that the education system remained ‘fragmented, under local control, and driven essentially by changes at the local level that were hardly detected by policy-makers until the late 1950s.’ (p. 33) With a large proportion of local authorities adopting a bipartite system which combined technical and grammar streams, and a significant minority wishing to introduce an element of multilateral education, Mandler questions ‘whether a tripartite system ever came into being.’ (p. 36, 32) More significantly, however, this interpretation results from how Mandler shifts the lens away from experts, policy-makers and politicians to focus instead on the ‘three incalculables’: the ‘bulge’ or what we now call the baby boom after the Second World War; the ‘trend’ for more people to seek more education; and the rise of the welfare state, driving popular attitudes to democracy and citizenship (p. 39). This focus allows Mandler to recover the important, if as yet unrecognised, role of ‘ordinary’ citizens, and to highlight the disjuncture between their aspirations and the architects of the Butler Act. If the Act, and the concept of meritocracy it embodied amongst policy-makers, politicians and experts, was a fundamental pillar in an elite post-war consensus, Mandler demonstrates that it rested on unstable foundations from the very beginning.

This disjuncture between elite visions of a meritocracy and democratic demand for education as both a consumption and investment good rumbled on through the 1950s and 1960s, as Britain transitioned to comprehensive schooling and expanded higher education. In Chapters Four and Five, Mandler is alive to how many of our longstanding assumptions about post-war education are the product of later disputes and debates. Comprehensivization, for example, is often regarded as ‘partial, contested and, ultimately, disappointing.’ (p. 69) Yet Mandler highlights how, by the end of the 1970s, 90 per cent of state school students were enrolled in comprehensives, and demonstrates that they were widely popular with the public. This was again an area where ‘central-government policy followed rather than led local government.’ (p. 68, 55) Policy-makers remained wedded to the concept of meritocracy, although Mandler does identify a gradual shift amongst certain revisionist social democrats who were well-connected to the emerging discipline of sociology. The likes of Anthony Crosland, John Vaizey and Michael Young, Mandler claims, all came to recognise that the concept of equality of opportunity required updating to reflect the fact that the ‘pool of ability’ was not fixed but could be expanded with the right social and economic policies. These debates also played out in higher education. By the start of the 1960s, policy-makers of both a conservative and a social democratic disposition converged around the need for higher economic growth and agreed that this required a major expansion of the nation’s educational resources. The 1963 Robbins Report, chaired by the free-market economist Lord Robbins, represented the culmination of these trends. Robbins recommended that higher education places should be ‘available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’ While the Report has been characterised as democratic, technocratic, meritocratic and even aristocratic, Mandler very much reads the expansion it advocated as a triumph of democratic pressure for greater access to further education. This is not to say that universities suddenly became egalitarian, classless spaces. Mandler acknowledges they remained middle class but recognises, drawing on the work of Mike Savage, that this was a ‘new middle class identity, modern, technical, strategically mobile’ and, in some ways, ‘self-consciously going for a classless style.’ (p. 92) Overall, despite the prominence of the ‘more means worse’ backlash by dissident conservatives like Kingsley Amis, the Robbins Report still embodied, in Mandler’s formulation, the democratic conception of equality of opportunity and demonstrated ‘the distance travelled’ from the narrow, meritocratic vision of the Butler Act (p. 73).

As in many accounts of post-war Britain, the 1970s represent a strange interlude in Mandler’s narrative. In Chapter Six the ‘trend’ stops dead, and the notion of further education is engulfed on all sides. In the first half of the decade, Britain experienced an ‘Indian Summer of manual employment’. Then, when the economic slump hit, the worry about deferring wages deepened (p. 111). Alongside this, a nascent ‘culture war’ post-1968 reduced faith amongst policy-makers and parents that education could address social problems or fuel economic growth (pp. 97-98). On the left, comprehensives were critiqued by the likes of Basil Bernstein as institutions actively working to construct and consolidate inequality. On the right, former Labour intellectuals like the authors of the Black Papers, A.E. Dyson and C.B. Cox, decried a rise of permissiveness and sought to restore selection. Steering a course between these two poles were moderates, embodied in the final Labour Prime Minister before the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Jim Callaghan. For Mandler, Callaghan’s influential 1976 Ruskin College speech sought to address concerns about indiscipline without endorsing meritocratic policies such as selection. Building on the work of Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Mandler connects the rise of parental activism in educational matters to a ‘decline of deference’ (pp. 105/06).(3)   While the rise of ‘popular individualism’ is frequently identified as heralding the hegemony of the New Right or of neoliberalism, Mandler elucidates how it could also be associated with the growing expectations and sense of civic entitlement encouraged by the welfare state and mass education (p. 105). In a similar vein to Guy Ortolano, Mandler explores how Thatcherism responded and grew out of post-war social democracy and its legacies, rather than representing a revolutionary break point.(4)

Mandler’s interrogation of Thatcherism straddles Chapters Six, Seven and Eight, and again seeks to use changes in education policy to challenge long-standing assumptions about Britain in the late twentieth century. Rather than portraying Thatcherism as a concrete, unchanging and carefully considered ideological formation, Mandler demonstrates how it was forced to grapple with ‘our old friends the bulge and the trend.’ While Thatcher’s new Education Secretary Keith Joseph felt confident enough to renounce the expansionary Robbins principle and embrace fiscal restraint in higher education upon taking office, by 1984 the Department of Eeducation and Science’s own projections recognised absolute social mobility into non-manual classes was growing rapidly and that the demand for higher education was likely to accelerate (p. 121). Joseph remained unmoved, and Thatcher replaced him with Kenneth Baker in 1986. It was this period, during the twilight years of Thatcherism, which Mandler identifies as the most crucial for Britain’s transition to the mass higher education system which we take for granted today. ‘Nothing like it’, Mandler claims, ‘had ever been seen before or has been seen since, not only in British history, but practically in the history of any other country in so short a time, except Korea in recent years.’ And yet, ‘it has been systematically short-changed, explained away, under-appreciated or unexamined.’ (p. 130) Baker’s motivations were ‘straightforwardly technocratic’. He believed investment in human capital would pay off in terms of higher economic growth. The real reason behind expansion lay in exponential demand for higher education or, in Mandler’s formulation, the unassailable triumph of democracy over meritocracy. This democratic victory is also evidenced in the subject choices of students and the ‘swing away from science’, despite the meddling of supposedly non-interventionist, market-guided ministers like Joseph. Early studies of subject choice revealed that the enjoyment of a subject was the prime motivation for studying it—though Mandler acknowledges that this enjoyment was socially conditioned by ‘class, gender and culture’—and provide a healthy check to the emerging view from human-capital economics (p. 163). For Mandler, the fact that most jobs continue to require no particular subject background loosens further the connection between subject choice and occupational outcome. This fact, combined with increased demand for university places despite the introduction of tuition fees, demonstrates that young people continue to see higher education as ‘valuable in its own right’, and ‘for the opportunity it gives for personal growth and independence, as much as representing a good investment for the future.’ (p.171)

Mandler brings together the book’s themes in a final chapter entitled ‘effectively maintained inequality’. Here he focuses more explicitly on the experts, policy-makers and politicians. If it gradually became clear to them in the 1950s and 1960s that the eleven-plus had not made elite selection more meritocratic, a few decades later it was obvious that comprehensives had not served to create a classless meritocracy either. The 1972 Oxford Mobility Study, for example, found that, as education was extended in the post-war period, the service class or salariat continued to be the prime beneficiaries (p. 185). Led by A.H. Halsey, it uncovered what sociologists would later call ‘effectively maintained inequality’ or the tendency of privileged groups to make better use of educational expansion than less privileged groups, thereby maintaining their relative advantage. Importantly, however, these debates did not have much of an impact on public opinion for a couple of reasons. First, the public had consistently embraced education as much as a consumption good (or as a badge of citizenship) as an investment one (p. 181). Secondly, and more significantly, greater numbers of people from less privileged backgrounds moved into higher status occupations for the simple reason that over the course of the post-war period Britain’s class structure changed and there was more ‘room at the top’. The focus on the anxieties of the scholarship boy or girl has distracted historians from the relatively common, less psychically disorientating, experience of gradual short-range mobility in post-war Britain. These are striking differences, however, when compared with the last two decades. Mobility is no longer thought of as a collective endeavour but as an individual one. While there are clearly more middle class individuals today, and therefore less opportunities for upward mobility, the economy has also failed to provide more good jobs. In the climate of declining living standards, rampant inequality at the top of the scale, and the pervasiveness of a distinctly neoliberal conception of aspiration, the vision of a meritocracy propagated (yet again) by another generation of national politicians feels particularly inadequate, unjust and hollow.

While The Crisis of the Meritocracy successfully overturns many of the shibboleths which, until now, have remained firmly lodged in the historiography of British education, there remains a different story of the concept to be told, one only hinted at in Mandler’s book. This alternative account would seek to explain why meritocracy became such a fundamental concept to Britain’s modern ideological traditions, and how such a diverse array of post-war actors, from sociologists to Prime Ministers, felt able to downplay or ignore the democratic or structural forces successfully outlined by Mandler. In many ways, this work has been started by the likes of Guy Ortolano and, more recently, Dean Blackburn, who both characterise the post-war period as a ‘meritocratic moment’, in stark contrast to Mandler’s ‘crisis’ narrative.(5)  Part of the explanation for this disjuncture clearly lies in Mandler’s focus on ‘ordinary citizens’ in comparison with Ortolano and Blackburn’s intellectual histories. Another explanation, however, may result from some conceptual confusion. In Mandler’s account the forces of democracy and meritocracy are in ‘constant tension’, with the latter coming under sustained pressure once sociologists like A.H. Halsey and Jean Floud demonstrated, in the mid-to-late 1950s, that the pool of ability was not fixed but could be expanded with the proper mix of social and educational policies (pp. 16-17, p. 57). Rather than describing this development as the triumph of democracy over meritocracy, however, we could characterise it as an expansion of the latter. John Vaizey, the revisionist social democrat and educational economist, is a good example of this position. For Mandler, Vaizey represents a ‘serious’, if ‘pretty lonely’, voice in debates about mass higher education, and he is characterised as being close to the anti-meritocratic voices of Michael Young, Anthony Crosland and A.H. Halsey (p. 82). Yet Vaizey was a supporter of comprehensive schools, expanding higher education and the concept of meritocracy. In 1962’s Education for Tomorrow he argued

[…] the clever are better at doing things. I would rather be operated on by a clever surgeon than a nice one; and intelligent people do use their knowledge so that life is able to continue and to improve for others. Would a meritocracy, in any case, be such a disaster? It seems to me that it would at least have the value of being built on the assumption that knowledge and skill are important.(6)   

Far from being in tension for Vaizey, as for other revisionist social democrats and even some one nation conservatives, meritocracy was to be embraced precisely because it was democratic. By situating the concepts of democracy and meritocracy in tension we lose sight of the fact that many intellectuals and political actors in the post-war period thought a more democratic education system—embodied in comprehensives and mass higher education—would help to deliver a meritocracy where the qualities of intelligence and talent would be privileged. At the heart of this was the technical, strategically mobile and self-consciously classless middle class identity Mandler acknowledges was at home in the new, post-Robbins university. The conception of meritocracy in Mandler’s account is analogous to the idea of elite selection, yet the concept was less static and more dynamic than this. As Ortolano and Blackburn recognise, while debates about education lay at the heart of post-war understandings of meritocracy, the concept possessed a broader range of meanings connected to professionalism, expertise and, most crucially, the distribution of rewards. This range of meaning was diluted by the rise of the market. The concept of meritocracy which emerged from the 1980s, to be appropriated by New Labour, was shorn of the egalitarian and democratic potential assigned to it by the likes of Vaizey, serving instead as a smokescreen for market-generated outcomes.(7)  The persistence of the word meritocracy into the twenty-first century does not mean or reflect the persistence of the same concept across time and space.

These arguments, however, target the periphery rather than the core of Mandler’s thesis and, in a sense, simply reflect different definitions of ‘meritocracy’. They certainly do nothing to devalue the significant contribution The Crisis of the Meritocracy makes to the broad historiography of modern Britain by positioning education at the interface between the citizen and the post-war state. Social democratic and neoliberal politicians may rise and fall, Mandler suggests, but the demand for education remains constant. Mandler’s account is a seminal example of how to analyse the structural constraints—whether in the form of demographic trends or democratic demands—which limit the scope of political activity. Often these constraints are only visible when we look backwards. In highlighting this disjuncture between social facts and political action, The Crisis of the Meritocracy demonstrates the value of historical analysis and carves out new space for the historian. As Mandler himself puts it, ‘hindsight by no means gives 20:20 vision, but it sure helps.’ (p. 124)


1 See for example: M. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (London, 2020); D. Goodhart, Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and StatusBack to (1)

2 M. Young, ‘Introduction to the Transatlantic Edition’, in his The Rise of the Meritocracy (New Brunswick, NJ., [1958], 1994), p. xii. Back to (2)

3 F. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Class, Politics and the Decline of Deference in England, 1968-2000 (Oxford, 2018); E. Robinson, C. Schofield, F. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite & N. Thomlinson, ‘Telling Stories about Post-War Britain: Popular Individualism and the “Crisis” of the 1970s’, Twentieth Century British History, 28/2 (2017), pp. 268-304.Back to (3)

4 G. Ortolano, Thatcher’s Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town (Cambridge, 2019).Back to (4)

5 G. Ortolano, The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain (Cambridge, 2009), p. 16; D. Blackburn, Penguin Books and Political Change: Britain’s Meritocratic Moment, 1937-1988 (Manchester, 2020), pp. 4-11.Back to (5)

6 J. Vaizey, Britain in the Sixties: Education for Tomorrow (Harmondsworth, 1962), p. 18.Back to (6)

7 J. Littler, Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility (London, 2017).Back to (7)


David Civil – Jubilee Centre. University of Birmingham.

Referências desta Resenha

MANDLER, Peter. The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Resenha de: CIVIL, David. Reviews in History. Londres, n. 2454, mar. 2022. Acessar publicação original [DR]

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