The ‘Gift’ of Meritocracy: The Rise (and Fall?) of the Academies Programme.

The ‘Gift’ of Meritocracy: The Rise (and Fall?) of the Academies Programme.

Kirsty Morrin

It is now often forgotten that Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy deployed ‘meritocracy’ as a pejorative term. Using the standardised 11-plus examinations of the time as a metaphor for a dystopian model of educational assessment and achievement, Young suggested meritocratic endeavours are synonymous with stifled creativity, and the promotion of uniformity. His satire articulated the injuries caused by an education system that promoted the virtues of ‘merit’ based on ‘natural talent’ and hard work, while ignoring the material realities that produce privilege for those most fortunate.

Although Young was vehemently against an education system that promoted this kind of meritocracy ‘to imagine merit where none existed was the sanctioned psychosis of a million homes’ [1]), a long-term cross-party consensus on the value of meritocratic thinking, or ‘feeling’ [2], has become a rhetoric marbled through political manifestos and education reforms. If we are to believe in the system, schools are the formal route to taking up, and becoming part of, meritocratic structures.

The latest instance of ‘meritocratic’ educational reform, the Academies Programme, has seen a drastic overhaul of state provision in education. The academies agenda has been championed as one which would break the mould in tackling the culture of educational under-attainment by raising aspirations, and thus promoting social mobility. However, as Reay argues, such a focus on raising aspirations is nothing more than ‘an ideological whip with which to beat the working classes’ [3].

The Rise of Academies
The academies initiative has its foundations in the Thatcher Government’s City Technology Colleges (CTCs). Although only 15 CTCs actually opened, the initiative established the model of transferring governing power in secondary schools from local authorities to central government, with additional funding from the private sector. Under New Labour, only 203 schools converted to academy status; these were ‘failing’ schools in areas of social disadvantage. In 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition opened up the academies programme to all schools, not only to those failing, but also giving ‘outstanding’ schools the chance to convert. In an earlier Discover Society article, Jodie Pennacchia has outlined some of the main initiatives put forward at the time. Today, two-thirds of secondary schools have academy status.

Those schools deemed as failing and forced to convert to academy status are given external sponsorship from entrepreneurs, philanthropists, religious groups and other educational institutions. Sponsors are responsible for improving performance in their schools, and as part of this, sponsors are tasked with articulating and embedding a clear educational vision in their schools, which encourages all pupils to ‘achieve’. However there is little or no evidence that conversion to academy status and sponsorship improves educational standards. The academies reproduce, but do not reform, inequalities, leading to a re-entrenchment of unequal, racialised and classed structures even within academies given the gold standard, the Ofsted rating ‘outstanding’ (Kultz 2014).

The Myth of Sponsorship
Academy sponsorship raises problems of a lack of democratic accountability, particularly in working-class communities (Morrin, 2016). It is therefore necessary to ask questions about who is investing in the programme, and for what purposes. Where there was once a notion of ‘traditional’ philanthropy in education, driven by a sense of obligation to ‘give back’ some of the surplus wealth created in industrial societies, now we find a model of ‘venture philanthropy’ built on investments and returns [4].

For example, in Milltown Academy (a pseudonym for one academy I researched) the sponsorship champions ‘entrepreneurial education’. Entrepreneurship is not only good business acumen, but something to learn, to do and be. The academy presents people not as being born entrepreneurs but rather entrepreneurs as being made; made through the education system. Entrepreneurship here embodies and is embedded in problematic policies to ‘raise aspirations’ and promote ‘social mobility’ (Chapman; Payne). Entrepreneurship, aspirations and social mobility come together as core elements of meritocracy, to further entrench individualism, competition, narrow notions of talents, and importantly, the need for extra-hard work (Shields). All the while, the austere materiality of many people’s lives is ignored.

The academies initiative, and entrepreneurial agendas in schooling, show no signs of slowing, with every new school that opens coerced into academisation, ‘failing’ schools regularly converted into academies, and government policies continuing to call for ‘Enterprise for All’. However, the same longevity cannot be assured for some of the external bodies investing in the programme. With doubts growing about government outsourcing, the Public Accounts Committee has recently criticised high-profile academy failures amid fresh concerns over ‘academy chains’ sponsoring more than one school. While education has long been understood as an institution tied to the market, investment and philanthropic intervention, it remains unclear what this means in the current context of increased and entrenched privatisation.

Against Academisation
Although unrelenting, academisation is not without its active opponents, from the refusal and resistance of individual teachers and others who work in academies [5], media commentators like Warwick Mansell, campaigns of the Anti-Academies Alliance, the tireless work of parents, to the recent promise from shadow education secretary Angela Rayner to end academisation.

One of Michael Young’s other contributions to today’s world of education is his son Toby, who might stand as a profane totem which brings together central issues in this article. Despite relatively low A level qualifications, he was Oxbridge-educated due to the intervention of his father. A self-declared ‘right-of-centre maverick’, Toby set up the first Free School (a derivative of the academies programme) in the country and is actively involved in the academies programme. Recently however, the Commissioner for Public Appointments found that ‘important principles in the Governance Code were breached or compromised’ in his appointment to the Board of the Office for Students. The ‘maverick’ was seen for what he was, a product of family connections, social background and the special ladders of political influence. Here, and buried under the current entrepreneurial agendas that we find in Milltown, are a select band of lionised, dystopian figures, symbolic of individualism and elite self-interests, not an education system improved for the benefit of the many.

I want to suggest, however, that Toby Young can also be a hopeful signal of an imminent demise of the structures he draws upon so readily, in particular in the successful campaign that led to his resignation from his role in the Office for Students. There is something to be gleaned in the joined-up approach taken by those demanding his resignation; the Twitter hashtags, the work of journalists and the resourcefulness of those with research capabilities. In the wider context of the academies programme, we are also seeing even more people involved: parents, local communities, teachers and students.

Central both to these resistances to academies, and the way members of elite circles try to include only those with their own kinds of social capital (or ‘merit’), are the questions, what is the future of the public education system? And who will have a say in it?  I think together we can have a say, and we must.

[1] Young, M. (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy, London: Thames and Hudson, p20.
[2] Littler, J. (2017) Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility, London: Routledge.
[3] Reay, D. (2012) What Would a Socially Just Education System Look Like? London: Centre for Labour and Social Studies, p9.
[4] Saltman, K.J (2010) The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
[5] Morrin, K. (2018) ‘Tensions in Teaching Character: How the ‘entrepreneurial character’ is reproduced, ‘refused’ and negotiated in an English Academy School’, Sociological Research Online, DOI 10.1177/1360780418769670.


Kirsty Morrin is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool. Her research interests and publications address issues in the sociology of education (specifically, the academies programme and venture philanthropy), inequalities and theories of resistance. From October 2018 she takes up an ESRC fellowship to examine elite sponsorships and investments in public schooling. 

Image: Kirsty Morrin