Monsters of meritocracy and beasts of bias: why social class matters in education, and how #MakeIt10 can help
If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything.
This is the foundation of the concept of meritocracy, the belief that people get what they deserve: that, in our society, effort and ability are rewarded with status and prestige (and, of course, money).
Meritocracy is an attractive concept. It gives the powerful reason to feel that they deserve their status, and it gives those without power the hope that they can achieve it if they work hard. Politicians agree. Tony Blair, in 2001, described his vision of the higher education sector as being a “strictly meritocratic programme”. More recently, Theresa May, in a speech as Prime Minister, said “I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.” If you have ability and work hard, then you can reach the top.
If we dig into the history of the term meritocracy, we find it has roots that may be surprising to Mr Blair and Mrs May. It was coined by sociologist and politician Michael Young in his book “The rise of the meritocracy”, published in 1958. Young was not, however, hailing meritocracy as the hallmark of a successful, progressive society. In fact, his book is a satire, written to warn against adopting meritocratic ideals. He saw great danger in a widespread endorsement of meritocracy creating an established elite whose status is accepted as legitimate, giving them leave to consolidate and wield their power, and a down and out underclass of people believed not to have the ability and/or not to have tried hard enough to rise up the social ranks.
Meritocracy legitimises those at the top and stigmatises those at the bottom. Young wrote that “the eminent know that success is a just reward for their own capacity, their own efforts”, and that the poor “are tested again and again… If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering reflection”.
Educationism: the last taboo
“Tested again and again…”. Something our education system does very well. Couple that with a strong endorsement of meritocracy and you have a society that stigmatises those with low levels of education. This is indeed the case. My colleague Toon Kuppens and his team (Kuppens et al., 2018) have empirically documented high levels of educationism: bias against those with low levels of education.
Across several studies, less educated people were liked less than poor people, obese people, blind people, and a low-status ethnic minority immigrant group. They were also rated as more responsible and blameworthy for their low status than poor people or working class people, especially by respondents who more strongly endorsed meritocracy.
This is worrying because people do vehemently endorse the idea of meritocracy. Victoria Beckham – a high profile figure and prominent role model for some – believes that “you can achieve anything if you work hard enough to get it”: a perfect meritocratic statement. Social media influencer Molly-Mae Hague claimed, “we all have the same 24 hours in a day”, implying that those who haven’t achieved the same high-status as her just haven’t used their time well.
But a true meritocracy requires equality of opportunities. That everyone—regardless of ethnicity, gender, social class, sexuality, physical ability—can, if they work hard, rise to the top. And we are far, far away from that.
Who fails at school and why?
Those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds do worse in education. Children eligible for free school meals—who are from families that are financially disadvantaged—have, on average, much lower levels of academic attainment than their peers. It is estimated that it would take at least an extra 18 months’ worth of learning for them to catch up to the level of their peers.
They are also:
- much more likely to be suspended and excluded from school
- 41% less likely to go to university
- 70% less likely to go to a prestigious university (see Rickett et al., 2022)
Educational inequalities by social class have many causes, from differences in access to technology (known as the “digital divide”) to the varying quality of schools, housing, and healthcare available to them in practice (Rickett et al., 2022). Yet, negative stereotypes, fuelled by strong meritocratic beliefs and an education system geared towards constant assessment, play an important role. This is because such stereotypes fuel stigma and discrimination.
In our society, there is a vast overrepresentation of privately educated people, and an underrepresentation of working class people, in elite and powerful positions. For example, although over half the population identify as working class, just 4% of doctors, 11% of new Oxford undergraduates, and 8% of Labour MPs are from working class backgrounds. The structure of our society – which types of people occupy different social roles and positions – fuels our expectations about who will succeed in certain professions. This is all-too-often reinforced by high-profile figures and through the popular media that laud those with power and money and stigmatise those without.
Biases at schools
We all absorb these tacit messages about whom to expect to do well and whom to do badly. Despite our best intentions, these messages often manifest themselves in unconscious biases and unintended discrimination. For example, in a study recently published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology that Lewis Doyle, Peter Harris and I conducted (Doyle et al., 2022), we gave an identical piece of written work to teachers, varying through subtle cues (such as the student’s name, hobbies, and parents’ occupations) whether the work was written by a student of either lower or higher socioeconomic background, and whose ethnicity was either White British or Black Caribbean.
Teachers gave significantly lower grades, placed the student in a lower ability set, and rated them as having less potential if they thought the student was from a lower socioeconomic background.
The findings also revealed that the more teachers believed that schooling is meritocratic – that students truly do get what they deserve – the less supportive they were for equity-enhancing initiatives such as the implementation of teaching practices to support a diverse student population. Meritocracy encourages us to blame those at the bottom for their low status and thwarts any initiatives that might help.
This research reflects the messages that teachers absorb unconsciously from our society; that people from economically disadvantaged families deserve their low status positions because they lack the ability and do not put in the effort required to achieve higher status. We therefore expect them to do badly at school. We are all susceptible to these biases; they come from the society we live in. But, within an education system geared towards constant assessment and where teachers are burdened with often unmanageable workloads, these biases can manifest themselves in pernicious ways and they can have real and long-term consequences. Those placed in lower ability sets are likely to have poorer educational experiences that dampen their chances of success further.
It is important to note, however, that we did not find any differences in the grades given to students who were White British or Black Caribbean, despite Black Caribbean students having, on average, lower attainment than White British students and (despite what some may claim) institutional racism being far from a thing of the past. We suspect that this is because unconscious racial biases are a well-known phenomenon and an important focus of diversity training, whereas class biases are not. This may reflect the fact that ethnicity is a legally protected characteristic in the Equalities Act 2010, while social class is not. Perhaps, because of the legal protection and initiatives that this inspires, teachers recognise their unconscious racial biases – which we all have – and consciously work to overcome them.
If this is true, then it is a strong endorsement for making social class a protected characteristic in an update to the Equalities Act 2010, something which my colleagues and I, supported by the British Psychological Society, have been campaigning for under the #MakeIt10 banner. This would raise awareness of socioeconomic and social class biases and mandate training and initiatives that aim to reduce them.
Stereotypes get under the skin
Stereotypes not only fuel our biases and discrimination but also get under the skin of those that are their target.
When someone knows that other people expect them to do badly because of prejudices and stereotypes, they can experience what psychologists term stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is a concern that your behaviour might confirm people’s negative expectations about your performance. This concern uses up cognitive resources and induces anxiety, and, over time, can lead students to psychologically disengage from education as a way to protect themselves from this aversive feeling. It therefore hampers academic performance and engagement, as empirical evidence has demonstrated (Croizet & Claire, 1998).
Psychologists can help: a team of colleagues and I, led by Ian Hadden (Hadden et al., 2020), found that a brief targeted intervention that reduces stereotype threat, known as self-affirmation, can reduce the gap in maths attainment between students on free school meals and their peers by over 60%. But such interventions can help only those who complete them. To bring about large-scale change, we need to change the structure of our society and our stereotypes though large-scale, structural initiatives.
We need to #MakeIt10
Discriminating against people because of their social class is not illegal. If an employer decides not to hire an applicant for a job because they are Black, they are breaking the law and could be taken to court for discrimination. If they choose not to hire someone because they are working class or have a regional accent, they are acting within the law. There is no mandate for organisations to document and address social class discrimination or social class inequalities.
Making social class a protected characteristic in an updated Equalities Act 2010 will raise awareness of social class discrimination and ignite initiatives designed to reduce it. It will help to combat some of the pernicious effects that believing we live in a meritocracy can have. It will highlight and remove some of the barriers to educational success that working class and economically disadvantaged students face.
So, what are we waiting for?
Visit the BPS website to find out more about the #MakeIt10 campaign
You can also read the BPS report ‘Psychology of social-class based inequalities: policy implications for a revised UK Equality Act‘
Croizet, J., & Claire, T. (1998). Extending the concept of stereotype threat to social class: The intellectual underperformance of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(6), 588–594. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167298246003
Doyle, L., Easterbrook, M. J., & Harris, P. R. (2022). Roles of socioeconomic status, ethnicity and teacher beliefs in academic grading. British Journal of Educational Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjep.12541
Hadden, I. R., Easterbrook, M. J., Nieuwenhuis, M., Fox, K. J., & Dolan, P. (2020). Self-affirmation reduces the socioeconomic attainment gap in schools in England. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(2), 517–536. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjep.12291
Kuppens, T., Spears, R., Manstead, A. S. R., Spruyt, B., & Easterbrook, M. J. (2018). Educationism and the irony of meritocracy: Negative attitudes of higher educated people towards the less educated. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 429–447. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2017.11.001
Rickett, B., Easterbrook, M. J, Sheehy-Skeffington, J., Reavey, P., & Woolhouse, M. (2022). The psychology of social class-based inequalities: Policy implications for a revised (2010) UK Equality Act. British Psychological Society. https://www.bps.org.uk/news/bps-launches-new-campaign-make-social-class-protected-characteristic
Young, M. (1958). The Rise of the Meritocracy. Thames and Hudson. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315134642