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Social Class, Merit and Equality of Opportunity in Education


The paper offers to substantiate a claim about the so-called Meritocratic Conception of how educational opportunities ought to be distributed. Such a conception holds an individual’s prospects for educational achievement may be a function of that individual’s talent or effort levels but should not be influenced by their social class background. The paper highlights the internal tension in the Meritocratic Conception between on the one hand a prohibition on the influence of social class on educational opportunities and on the other a permission to allow unequal educational opportunities on the basis of talent and effort. This tension obtains because individuals’ talent and effort are themselves subject to influence by social class. The paper makes a positive case for an interpretation of the Meritocratic Conception that resolves this tension in favour of an egalitarian version, such that social class represents an objectionable determinant of unequal educational prospects even when its influence is mediated through the cultivation of talent and effort. This argument is further supported through an explanation that the character of social class as a systemic social source of the structure of individuals’ opportunities makes it an objectionable influence on educational opportunities.

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  1. The former being concerned with achieving something according to standards internal to the education system, like particular educational qualifications; the latter being the broader opportunities afforded by obtaining those educational achievements.

  2. To be clear, the Meritocratic Conception under consideration does not require differential funding on the basis of differences in talent and effort but it does permit such differential funding.

  3. Brighouse and Swift themselves link the Meritocratic Conception to Rawlsian fair equality of opportunity. See Brighouse and Swift (2009b) and also Swift (2004b).

  4. Later, Rawls also remarks that ‘even where fair opportunity (as it has been defined) is satisfied, the family will lead to unequal chances between individuals’ (Rawls 1971, p. 511).

  5. This is a rough indication for the purposes of illustration only. It fails to reflect, amongst other things, the intensity of work and, say, the extent to which effort might be reflected by courses that require a greater number of hours of homework. What’s more, I take it that the kind of effort relevant to the Meritocratic Conception will also cover not only how hard children work but also the ambitions children have to achieve through education.

  6. Whilst the Hart and Risley study does not demonstrate how effort specifically is enhanced by social background, it does indicate the power of social class to influence merit more generally.

  7. Brighouse and Swift appear, however, to offer an interpretation of the Meritocratic Conception that allows for social class influenced differences in merit to determine inequalities in educational opportunities for they contrast the Meritocratic Conception with a more complete, and radical, conception of educational equality’ under which we discount for effort levels in virtue of the fact that they are heavily influenced by family and neighbourhood factors’ (Brighouse and Swift 2008, p. 448). Now, as I explain in the following, family and neighbourhood factors might not themselves constitute or reflect social class differences. Strictly, then, such claims are not inconsistent with the contention that the Meritocratic Conception ought to be interpreted in a more Restrictive form even if they suggest a more Permissive interpretation.

  8. To be sure, we still might want to appeal to the more radical principle to condemn inequalities in educational achievement that are not the result of social class and its influence on the development of talent and effort.

  9. For consideration of the view that merit should be defined in terms of educational achievement see Marshall et al. (1997, Ch. 7), Marshall and Swift (1997, pp. 39–42).

  10. Note that the proposed analytical distinction does not require that they are separable in practice, only that they are distinguishable in principle.

  11. Swift briefly discusses claims of this sort in Swift (2005), pp. 263–265.

  12. For more on the relevance of internalisation of norms and tastes to questions of equality see Ronald Dworkin’s debate with Jerry Cohen, for instance Dworkin (1981, pp. 302–304), (2004), Cohen (1989, pp. 925–927), (2004).

  13. Andrew Mason makes a similar point against Brian Barry, see Mason (2006, p. 108).

  14. Although, as Hart and Risley indicate, even prior to entry in primary education children are subject to significantly unequal influences derived from their social class (Hart and Risley 2003).

  15. Mason frames his discussion in terms of Rawlsian fair equality of opportunity, but the fact that he does so does not affect the applicability of the argument.

  16. Or, importantly for the argument, even give them pro tanto reasons for refraining from doing so.

  17. For more on Agent-Centred Prerogatives see, for example, Scheffler (1982), Kagan (1984), and in the context of egalitarian distributive justice (Estlund 1998).

  18. Mason appears to consider a form of this argument when he considers the view that ‘parents should be permitted to act partially towards their children in these ways (such) that it completely silences the reasons they may have for thinking that doing so creates unfair advantages’. He argues that this is implausible, but this response just seems to beg the question against the idea that there are agent-centred prerogatives conceived in this way (Mason 2006, pp. 100–101).

  19. The dimensions to social class divisions are therefore multiple, potentially varied and, at least to some extent, context dependent.


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I am grateful to the editors of Res Publica and to two anonymous referees for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Gideon Elford.

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Elford, G. Social Class, Merit and Equality of Opportunity in Education. Res Publica 22, 267–284 (2016).

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  • Equality
  • Merit
  • Education
  • Social class