Social mobility

The rise of the pluto-meritocracy

Meritocracy, a word coined by my father, gets a bad press these days. Two recent books — The Meritocracy Trap (2019) by Daniel Markovits and The Tyranny of Merit (2020) by Michael Sandel — hold it responsible for many of America’s ills, and in some settings saying you believe the most qualified person should get the job is classified as a ‘micro-aggression’ because it ignores the role that race plays in determining a person’s life chances. It’s one of those progressive doctrines that’s fallen out of favour. So kudos to Adrian Wooldridge, the political editor of the Economist, for producing a full-throated defence of the principle. In The Aristocracy of

Meritocracy isn’t fair

I’ve just made a programme for Radio 4 about the populist revolts that swept Britain and America last year. Were they predicted in a book written by my father, Michael Young, almost 60 years ago? I’m thinking of The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian satire that imagines a 21st-century Britain governed by a highly educated technocratic elite. Eventually, the intellectual and moral hubris of these Masters of the Universe is too much for ordinary people and they’re overthrown in a bloody revolution in 2034. It often surprises people to learn that my father’s critique of meritocracy was underpinned by his belief that human differences are rooted in genetics, a

Regressive Conservatism

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party is coming to resemble a drunk trying to get home on a bike. Most of the time he just pushes it along, but occasionally he mounts the saddle and whirls into action — only to find himself swiftly spread-eagled on the road. Take next month’s local elections. Corbyn launched his party’s campaign trying to bemoan the state of Britain. There are plenty of statistics which he could have trotted out to depict a country underperforming on living standards, debt levels and social mobility. But he chose to cite a supposed decline in life expectancy — which is demonstrably and famously wrong. Life expectancy

First-time buyers flock to the bank of mum and dad

When my sister had a little girl, my aunt told her: ‘You’re vulnerable for the rest of your life.’ She meant, of course, that my sister’s overwhelming love for her daughter would mean a lifetime of worry – as well as all the incredible new experiences that motherhood would bring. She should have added financial vulnerability to that list. From pocket money to tooth fairy cash, childcare and education, children are expensive. According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, the cost of raising a child to the age of 21 is £230,000, or more than the price of an average semi-detached house in Britain. Many parents will know that the financial outlay

Are grammar schools more meritocratic?

‘It is highly unlikely the Prime Minister has read the book,’ my father harrumphed, commenting on the appropriation of the word ‘meritocracy’, which he invented to describe a dystopian society of the future in The Rise of the Meritocracy. That comment appeared in a 2001 article for the Guardian and the Prime Minister in question was Tony Blair, but I expect my late father would have been equally unhappy about Theresa May’s misuse of it in her education speech last week. In fact, he probably would have been even more cross because the book, which was published in 1958, was a thinly veiled attack on grammar schools. Like his close

The problem with grammar schools

By rights, I should be one of those Tories who is passionately in favour of grammar schools. After all, I went to one myself. My attachment to them should be particularly strong because before arriving at William Ellis in Highgate I went to two bog-standard comprehensives and failed all my O–levels apart from English Literature, in which I got a C. The only other qualification I left with was a grade one CSE in Drama. William Ellis was the making of me. Had I not got in, I doubt I would have ended up at Oxford. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not a passionate opponent of grammar schools either. I wouldn’t

Purge of the posh

Any parents considering Dollar Academy are invited to take their car along its long driveway and park outside what looks like a palace. When I first did so with my parents, I told them that it all looked ridiculously posh. My mum flew into a rage. ‘Posh’ was a word of bigotry, she said, and one I’d best not use if I was going to survive a day in boarding school. My dad left school aged 15 and eventually joined the RAF, which was kindly paying for me to board while he was posted to Cyprus. He’d have loved such an opportunity, and wanted me to see it for what

I told you so: the UK electricity gap looms wider than ever

Amid all the turmoil in global energy markets, we should not lose sight of the UK power programme that we’re praying will keep our lights on a decade hence: it is, as you know, a hobbyhorse of mine. So how’s it going down at Hinkley Point in Somerset? My man with big binoculars in the Bridgwater Bay nature reserve tells me he’s seeing plenty of lorry movements on the nuclear site, but signals from EDF of France — which has a two-thirds interest in this £18 billion project, alongside Chinese investors — are very worrying. Having already spent £2 billion, the French state utility has deferred until at least the

Don’t act white, act migrant

A black head teacher told me a story of his early days at a failing inner-city school. The job was a thankless one and everybody was waiting anxiously for the arrival of the new ‘super-head’ (the school had gone through three leaders in two years). In the playground it was leaked that the new head was an old-school type from Jamaica. During his first encounter with the students, they asked him how many children he had. He told them he had one and that she lived with him and his wife. ‘No sir, how many do you have in Jamaica?’ they asked. He replied: ‘None.’ They jeered, ‘Oh sir you’re

The best way to end the ‘poshness test’

There’s a warning buried in the detail of the new report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on why top companies employ so few applicants from comprehensive schools: ‘Though this study provides valuable insights into barriers to the elite professions, there are nevertheless some limitations associated with the chosen research methodology. As a small-scale qualitative study, the aim is to explore issues and generalisability is limited.’ But most pundits who’ve commented so far missed this caveat. ‘New research… reveals the privileged choose and look after their own,’ wrote Owen Jones in the Guardian. ‘They don’t like accents that sound a bit, well, “common”.’ Grace Dent made the same

You can’t force low-income people to go to an art gallery or the theatre if they don’t want to

I went last week to see the justly praised production of Wagner’s The Mastersingers at English National Opera, and I didn’t see a single black face there, nor even much dark hair (except in the case of Melvyn Bragg who, though now greying a bit, still seems to have Ronald Reagan’s gift for keeping white hairs at bay). This chimed with the finding of the Warwick Commission on the arts in Britain that much the greater part of live-music audiences, theatre-goers and gallery visitors is old, white and middle-class. Even though this wasn’t actually the reason for the Arts Council’s drastic decision to curtail ENO’s funding — this was because

Why tomorrow’s parents won’t want their children to go to university

Could the current generation of parents be the first ones who won’t want their children to go to university? Until now that mortarboard photo on the sideboard has always been the dream, visual proof that your offspring have munched their way to the top of the educational food chain. Advancement by degree. But that was before tuition fees. Now there’s a price tag attached to your little one’s ‘ology’ (to quote Maureen Lipman in those BT ads), how many people will automatically see it as a good thing? Perhaps more of us will refuse to prostrate ourselves before the great god Uni? If so, that can only be a good

Hugo Rifkind

Maybe it’s a problem when all artists are like James Blunt. But it’s worse when Labour MPs are like Chris Bryant

What should we do with James Blunt? This is what I have been asking myself. And I am not looking for comedy answers here, such as ‘Lock him in a shipping container and force him to listen to songs by James Blunt’ or ‘Allow him to become a properly recognised bit of Cockney rhyming slang’. No. It’s a genuine question. I refer, of course, to the enjoyable spat conducted this week via open letters to the Guardian, between the singer (private school and Bristol University), and the shadow culture secretary, Chris Bryant (private school and Oxford), over whether people in the arts are too posh. I don’t know why, even

Justine Greening interview: ‘It’s about understanding what it’s like to start from scratch’

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Isabel Hardman, Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth discuss the Tory civil war” startat=60] Listen [/audioplayer]Justine Greening wants to talk about social mobility. If it is not immediately obvious why the Secretary of State for International Development wants to talk about this issue, it becomes clear. Growing up the daughter of a steel worker gave her an insight into what it’s like to struggle, she tells me, when we meet in a conference room overlooking Parliament Square. She says she feels that the Tories are not pushing as hard on social mobility as they ought to be. Ms Greening thinks the issue needs a champion. She never says so

Letters: How IQ is handed down

IQ and social mobility Sir: It seems not to have occurred to our leaders that ability is not evenly distributed across the social classes. In a meritocratic society, employers will try to recruit the most able candidates into the top positions. There, they meet other bright people, pair off and have children. As Professor Plomin’s work clearly demonstrates (‘The Truth about Intelligence’, 27 July), these children inherit much of their intelligence from their parents, so like them, they succeed in the education system and end up getting top jobs. Middle-class kids therefore tend to outperform working-class kids, not because they are unfairly privileged, but because they are likely to be