“A well argued, reflective and strongly researched analysis of the limits and limitations of meritocracy.” – Andrew Jack, global education editor for the Financial Times and Orwell Youth Prize judge 2023
Scroll to the end of the page for an interview between Beth and 2019 Orwell Youth Prize winner, Jessica Johnson.
Upon first glance, a meritocracy – a world in which people can go as far as their merit takes them, and where those in power are there because of their own merit – seems to be a good thing: a marker of an equal society, and something within our grasp. For example, take the grammar school system: students who pass the test have the opportunity to aim high in an academically oriented school; push for the highest grades and attend top universities. However, I am in the majority of students who were tutored to pass the 11+. It is no longer the smartest students who are passing the test, it’s the richest ones. This illusion of meritocracy creates the idea amongst grammar school students that they are more worthy than their peers, and any success that comes their way is a product of their own hard work and talents, rather than a combination of effort, opportunity and, most importantly, luck. This encourages them to look down on their less successful peers; if the ‘winners’ deserve their success then the ‘losers’ deserve their squalor. This meritocratic hubris (Sandel, 2021, 28) is inescapable as long as humans insist on being a selfish species.
The harm caused by a meritocracy is not limited to those who are unsuccessful. The idea of a meritocracy, as it is generally thought of today, focuses heavily on academic success as a marker of merit, undermining the dignity of work and manual labour. A society cannot function on academics and politicians alone; it needs lorry drivers and factory workers. These people who arguably work just as hard as lawyers or doctors are conveniently forgotten in this “Great Meritocracy”. The average university lecturer earns double that of an average cleaner. Are university lecturers, on average, twice as good at what they do? I doubt it.
The culture surrounding elite jobs and education [becomes] more unattainable with every generation that lives through it…
Meritocracy is also bad for those on top: its ‘winners’. The culture surrounding elite jobs and education exacerbates itself, becoming more unattainable with every generation that lives through it, slowly destroying the welfare of those that are thriving, making their topple inevitable. In recent years, various reports have shown that students feel that their mental health has been significantly impacted by the pressures of elite academic settings. An apt reflection of this is that young people in “high-achieving” settings experience up to seven times the levels of anxiety and depression as their peers in other school settings (Luthar, 2020, 7); the ‘winners’ are actively being harmed by their ‘prize’.
The Achilles’ heel of a meritocracy is not its own fault. Instead it is due to our society’s values. Perhaps, if we were to completely reconstruct society from its foundations, a fair meritocracy would be viable, but the ideas that rule make it an impossibility. A meritocracy cannot work in a society that values superiority over success like our own. How can one go as far as their merit takes them, when there can only be the top “1%” with the other 99 below it? Someone, in fact most people, have to be losing, just so those who do win can gorge themselves on their spoils. The attraction of a meritocracy is its promise of equality for how can a society with superiority as its pillar, be, in any way shape or form, equal?
The idea of being successful is almost synonymous with being wealthy.
Another pitfall of meritocracy is the fault of our society. The idea of being successful is almost synonymous with being wealthy. You are not seen as successful if you’re not wealthy, and you are successful if you are wealthy with no regard to how hard you’ve worked or how good you are at what you do, as it is assumed that you must be one of the elites to walk among them. This is typified in grammar schools. It is not possible for everyone to be successful when wealth accumulation is the proxy measure of success. For a meritocracy to even be a consideration, we need to decouple achievement from wealth, and deconstruct our ideas of what it means to be successful. As it is, there is a lottery of birth, as there is a very strong correlation between the material wealth of the family a child is born into and their educational attainment (von Stumm et al., 2022), therefore creating a plutocracy, rather than the “Great Meritocracy” that has been promised to us time and time again. By Tony Blair in 1999 (White & Blair, 1999), by Theresa May in 2016 (May, 2016) and by Boris Johnson in 2019 (Havery & Caldecott, 2019). The inability to deliver equality of opportunity as promised transcends both decades and parties; Prime Ministers united in their inability to provide equality for their people.
A true meritocracy would be better for those within it.
Given that the premise of this article is that we do not live in a meritocracy, one question persists: would a genuine meritocracy be an improvement? I believe that a true meritocracy would be better for those within it. A prerequisite for this meritocracy is for everyone to be provided with a meaningful opportunity to thrive. In this alternate reality, people would be free to shape their own dreams, rather than mould them in the cast of wealth. Any avenue they chase would be in pursuit of self-actualization, rather than a necessity of survival, eradicating this race for wealth we justify by falsely calling it a meritocracy. Under this new status quo, division of resources would be equitable and therefore achievement would primarily be for self-fulfilment rather than material gain.
This meritocracy works because by removing the shackles of economic expediency; everyone is free to fulfil their potential. Therefore, everyone lives in a world of their own personal bests being achieved and is fulfilled and content. In this true meritocracy, everyone is happy. However, this construct will remain a fantasy until such a time as human rights are expanded to meet all genuine human needs to be able to live a free life. The economic imperatives of food, shelter and clothing will prevent a true meritocracy from ever coming to fruition.
It can be hard to look outside of our own veil of ignorance and challenge things we know to be unfair. It’s easy to justify our own situation by demeaning our own power and influence. We do not live in a meritocracy and the idea that we do is poisoning us. As long as we use the bodies of this impossible system’s losers as a platform to elevate the wealthy; we are doomed to be forever divided. We are fed success stories as a way to incentivize the masses, when we all know that success stories are just that. Stories.
Until we stop focussing on personal gain and instead look towards common good, meritocracy, despite being promised, will remain a pipe dream.
Havery, G., & Caldecott, S. (2019, December 14). Boris Johnson holds victory rally in Sedgefield. The Northern Echo.
Luthar, S. S. (2020, June). Students in High-Achieving Schools: Perils of Pressures to Be “Standouts”. Adversity and Resilience Science, 7.
May, T. (2016, September 9). Britain, the great meritocracy: Prime Minister’s speech. GOV.UK. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from
Sandel, M. J. (2021). The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Penguin Books, Limited.
von Stumm, S., Cave, S. N., & Wakeling, P. (2022). Persistent association between family socioeconomic status and primary school performance in Britain over 95 years. npj Science of Learning.
White, M., & Blair, T. (1999, January 15). Blair hails middle class revolution | Politics. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/1999/jan/15/uk.politicalnews1
We asked previous winners and runners up of the Orwell Youth Prize to interview the 2023 cohort about their Orwell Youth Prize writing. Below, 2019 winner, Jessica Johnson, interviews 2023 winner, Beth Anker, about meritocracy, educational inequality, and the importance of valuing academic success rather than academic superiority:
Jess: In the first paragraph you mention you were tutored to pass the 11+, what made you want to write about meritocracy from your position in it?
Beth: I think the initial drive to write about meritocracy came from the people I’m surrounded by. A lot of the people at my school would’ve attended a private school had they not passed the 11+, the people that can afford private school make up such a disproportionately small percentage of the population compared to how they’re represented in grammar schools it made me start thinking about if ‘smarts’ (I don’t mean smarts really, it’s for a lack of a better word to describe the type of people grammar schools test for), is really the trait that grammar schools find in people, when so many seem to have lots of money too. Also considering what areas of the country have grammar schools fully instituted (Buckinghamshire, Kent and Yorkshire), are all among some of the most affluent areas outside of London. I believe recognising unfair systems that you are benefiting from is so important, and that often those within them are some of the best equipped to critique them.
Jess: What do you think about the future of education, especially considering some of the evidence that suggests mixed-ability teaching can improve overall attainment?
Beth: It’s clear our education system, which is full of division and disparity, will only reproduce inequality. If we look towards Finland as an example, by creating a ‘common’ school and working to abolish fee paying and selective schools, we can provide a better education system for every student. I think the reason a lot of parents are resistant to this change is because they believe that their child will be receiving a worse education just so others can receive a better one. The policymakers making decisions regarding overhauls like this also tend to be the same intransigent parents. However I don’t believe this perceived damage to their child’s education is a prerequisite for the common school. Instead it is about levelling up comprehensive schooling until it is comparable to selective and fee paying schooling, which in some cases it is. Once this has occurred there is no real reason, outside of to pay for your child to attend an independent school, or tutor your child to pass the 11+, thus making independent and grammar schools obsolete. I can’t even begin to imagine how big of an overhaul would be necessary to achieve this goal of equal schooling, especially with such an exam-focused education system. However it is so important that all students are provided with equal opportunities to thrive. The highest attaining students’ success should not have to depend on the lowest attaining students’ ‘failure’.
Jess: How do you think we balance valuing academic success and other achievements equally with trying to improve educational equality across the classes?
Beth: I think the main struggle in balancing valuing achievements and improving educational equality, is it seems that it would become easy to ignore high achieving students in favour of those who are struggling, and thus their grades begin to slip, creating a cycle where there are always students at the bottom. I actually think the way to avoid this is by valuing academic success. In valuing academic success, and not academic superiority, it is possible for every student to cross the ‘bar’ for academic achievement. If one student gets 90% and another 70%, it doesn’t matter as long as they both pass the test. In this way academic achievement becomes attainable for all students, making improving education equality easier as it provides clear goalposts to aim for. Schools can provide further opportunities for students already achieving academic success to deepen their knowledge and work with classes to improve their attainment.
Jess: Graduates from top universities appear to be increasingly applying for jobs in law and finance, are other less well-paid sectors missing out on our brightest minds?
Beth: In some cases, yes. There absolutely are sectors that are struggling and need more people working in them, especially people with higher education but the sectors don’t have the means to attract them. However, I believe that passion is more important than a prestigious degree, and if someone truly wants to work in a sector, a lower salary would not dissuade them. All sectors are better off with a passionate workforce, with less prestigious degrees or no degrees at all, than graduates from top universities attracted by a paycheck.
Beth Anker is a junior winner in The Orwell Youth Prize 2023