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‘The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World’ by Adrian Wooldridge – Review

  • 30 June 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

This is a fascinating new book by the author of many fascinating books. Ranging from Plato to modern Singapore, it shows the power of the meritocratic idea. Much of it neatly captures the endless tension between aristocracy and meritocracy but also the way in which meritocracy can itself be problematic – all of which is evident in the title, The Aristocracy of Talent.

The book is worth reading for the grand sweep that it provides, for the wealth of material brought to bear and for the nice turns of phrase. Take, for example, the author’s analogy for the current state of politics (from page 339):

One way to understand recent history is to think of a queue for coffee: you are heading to Starbucks in the morning, desperate for a cup of regular coffee before you start laying bricks, when a young person in LuluLemon yoga clothes cuts in front of you and orders a skinny no-foam extra-shot latte made with almond milk – for twenty people. Then the line turns round and starts giving you a lecture on how you’re a sexist, racist bully who needs to check your privilege before speaking.

Don’t just take my word for it: I urge HEPI readers to check the book out and have no doubt many will enjoy it and find it a rewarding read. Indeed, on initially reading the book, I decided not to bother reviewing it as there didn’t seem much substantive to say other than that it is very good.

Yet when I reached the final section, I found it infuriating. 

One of the most common reasons HEPI turns papers down is that even brilliant exposés of a problem can falter at the end. You can read page after page of searing analysis and then turn to an insipid and unilluminating conclusion without clear recommendations for the future. Policy bodies must outline the policy consequences of their own analysis: if an author who knows the true nature of a problem is unclear on the lessons for policymakers, it seems unreasonable to expect policymakers to work out the solutions on their own.

Yet I wish this particular book had ended with the analysis. I am not sure I have ever seen such a lengthy tome with such a chasm between the quality of the analysis and the weak policy solutions tacked on the end. Adrian Wooldridge’s first 366 pages provide an excellent overview of the meritocratic ideal across different ages, different countries and different cultures, including the pros and the cons. In the final 34 pages, while the prose remains smooth, the ideas are ridiculously rough.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who studied at Balliol, All Souls and Berkeley, Wooldridge comes down firmly in the final analysis for meritocracy

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who studied at Balliol, All Souls and Berkeley, Wooldridge comes down firmly in the final analysis for meritocracy, despite its faults. Any weaknesses, he argues, can be tackled by introducing ‘more meritocracy’ and ‘wiser meritocracy’ (his italics) via specific policy initiatives.

So he is in favour of tough academic selection at a young age. He advocates for state-funded (‘national’) scholarships at the most elite private schools (specifically those like ‘Eton, Winchester and Marlborough’). He argues for ‘standardized tests’ and against ‘subject-focused tests’. He wants ‘free university educations’ for those who agree to spend a certain time working in the public sector. And he believes that ‘Perhaps the best thing that could be done to advance equality of opportunity would be to create educational priority areas, defined by poverty’.

But he avoids the uncomfortable fact that the literature on these specific ideas highlights severe shortcomings, making a new form of meritocracy harder to achieve than the book pretends. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

Academic selection at younger ages: The evidence on academic selection, recently brought together in a HEPI collection of essays, suggests it can drag areas down. That is why, for example, the Social Mobility Commission reported late last year that there are serious problems with social immobility in parts of selective Buckinghamshire and Kent. (Incidentally, while such arguments against selection are usually applied to schools, Professor Tim Blackman has applied them to post-compulsory education.)

State-backed scholarships at independent schools: The Attlee and Wilson Governments toyed with state-funded scholarships to leading independent boarding schools but the schemes that did exist only helped a tiny minority, were bedevilled by problems of selection and offered taxpayers poor value for money. Thatcher’s Assisted Places Scheme aimed at day pupils suffered similar problems. Indeed, some years ago the Boston Consulting Group found sponsored places at independent schools to be the single least cost-effective social mobility intervention out of a dozen that they tested.

More use of standardized testing rather than subject-specific assessment: In 2010, a five-year study to assess the value of using an aptitude test in the selection of candidates for admission to higher education, which involved the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS), the National Foundation for Educational Research (where, to declare an interest, I am a Trustee), the Sutton Trust and the College Board, concluded: ‘In the absence of other data, the SAT® has some predictive power but it does not add any additional information, over and above that of GCSEs and A levels (or GCSEs alone), at a significantly useful level.’

Financial incentives to encourage graduates to enter public service: New Labour experimented with student loan forgiveness for public servants as did Theresa May / Justine Greening (and HEPI has in the past published a paper backing the idea). It is too early to assess the later initiative but the evaluation of the earlier one was decidedly mixed, finding – for example – that teachers themselves tend to regard better discipline and lower workloads as more important for retention than financial incentives.

Educational priority areas, according to poverty rates: It has been repeatedly shown that there is a low correlation between area-based boundaries and disadvantage. At its simplest, this is because rich people sometimes live in areas designated as poor and disadvantaged people sometimes live in areas deemed to be rich. A new Sutton Trust report, for example, finds POLAR, which measures university participation in different areas, ‘is very poorly correlated with low family-income’; it also finds the number of years someone is eligible for free school meals ‘is the best available marker for childhood poverty’. So while geographical measures are not entirely without value, they have only limited utility as a tool to boost the education of individual disadvantaged people. 

Perhaps we can craft the finer details of any specific policy lever better than in the past and then use this to ensure the ideas in this book work more effectively the next time they are tried. But if Wooldridge has answers to the well-developed critiques of his policy ideas, we never find out what they are, as he skates over the surface as fast as Torvill and Dean. His policy ideas deserve a fair hearing, but they are so against the current mainstream consensus that they need far more supporting evidence to explain why they should be taken seriously – and why their critics are wrong – if they are to stick.

There is another oddity in the concluding pages too. After the preceding paean to academic excellence and the pleas to make academic selection more common and sharper, the author suddenly performs a handbrake turn in favour of that well-worn cliché ‘equality of esteem’ for different educational routes.

Having argued immediately beforehand for meritocracy to be given rocket boosters, it is as if he is trying to salve his conscience at the last minute. Most oddly, at this point in the argument he even endorses the ideas of David Goodhart, who has generally been seen as the scourge of meritocrats.

Wooldridge lays the failure to deliver parity of esteem squarely at the door of policymakers, who – for example, he notes – converted polytechnics to universities almost 30 years ago. There are the usual nods towards technical education in Germany too, although there is no mention of the OECD’s concerns about the slow pace of social mobility there.

In contrast to blocking politicians, the mood of the general public, we are told, is much more favourable towards practical endeavours than cerebral ones – such as (and here the argument becomes very odd) the achievements of Matt ‘Megatoad’ Stonie who, apparently, ‘earns more than $200,000 a year as the world’s hot-dog eating champion’. Those who are trying hard to make T-Levels a success and to improve ‘higher technical’ routes will not thank Wooldridge for such a trite example.

if the growth in academic endeavours is a problem, then it is not primarily the result of politicians forcing a hierarchy of educational routes on society

In reality, if the growth in academic endeavours is a problem, then it is not primarily the result of politicians forcing a hierarchy of educational routes on society in the face of the contrary demands of voters. Yes, Tony Blair’s 50% target put a particular focus on higher education but many policymakers from across the political spectrum have struggled to deliver parity of esteem – recent examples include Vince CableDavid Sainsbury and Gavin Williamson.

The failure to deliver parity of routes has more to do with school leavers opting for higher education in greater proportions than ever before and employers seeking out and – on average – paying handsomely for the talents of graduates. It seems surprising that a self-confessed meritocrat like Adrian Wooldridge does not welcome such a shift.


  1. John Claughton says:

    It is a truth, a sad truth, that the education system is flawed and unfair and it is also true that even the best ideas have undesirable side-effects. After all, we live in the ‘sewers of Remus not the Republic of Plato’. However, some things might work better than others:

    – grammar schools are not going to stop being selective but some of them have made serious moves to make themselves more accessible to disadvantaged pupils by allocating up to 25% of places to those on Free School Meals.
    – state-funding of places at independent boarding schools – at £40k+ a year – clearly isn’t a very bright idea but funding of places at urban independent day schools might not be such a bad idea. After all, you might get three times more pupils and they can continue to live in and work with their own communities. It was called the Direct Grant scheme once upon a time.

    – even if state-funding of places at independent schools might not be cost-effective, independent schools funding places through fund-raising from their own community can be a potent force for good.

    There are institutions which are doing these things at the moment – Manchester Grammar School, Bolton School, the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham and others. Perhaps their work and impact need investigation and recognition as much as Eton’s decision to set up three schools in areas where some of them have operated for centuries as forces for good.

  2. John Brennan says:

    Just remember Michael Young’s book, ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ (1958). 2 points in particular –
    i) UK schools ‘not bad’ at providing routes for upward social mobility for clever children from working class backgrounds; but ‘hopeless’ at providing routes for downward social mobility for stupid children from upper class backgrounds,
    ii) Actually, the full title of the book was ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870 to 2033’. Because 2033 with be the year of the British Revolution!
    I hope that universities are preparing us for it.

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