Elitism or Meritocracy?

Frank Dobson, a Labour M.P. and former Secretary of State for Health, has an article in today’s Observer that assails the ‘elitist’ policies of Tony Blair’s government, particularly in education and health care. The health issue seems reasonably straightforward: he says that less money is being spent in poorer areas, and that does sound like a policy that favours the already favoured. But in education, surely things are not quite so simple. There is a worry, among those who agree with Dobson, about a proposal for super A-levels to challenge super-clever children. Dobson parses the idea this way:

“This idea that gifted children need super A-levels comes from people who want a privileged minority to be able to look down on young people who have passed ‘just’ A-levels.”

Well. That is one possibility, certainly, but surely there are others? Surely there is more than one way to look at the subject, and more than one possible motivation for wanting to see students challenged to stretch as far as they can? Is the most spiteful or invidious motive automatically the correct one? Is education solely a mechanism for getting ahead? Is it solely a pretext for humiliating other people? Is it solely a slotting-device for the hierarchy? Could a desire for more demanding education possibly have anything to do with thoughts about education being an intrinsic good as well as an instrumental one? Could the subject, in short, be a little more complex than that comment makes it sound?

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