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Meritocracy in Education (Scotland School System)

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The flag of Scotland

The flag of Scotland

What Is Meritocracy?

There are many ways to interpret or define ‘meritocracy’, but John Goldthorpe (2003; 234–235) sums up a modern understanding as:

[Meritocracy] concerns the relationship between individuals' class origins, their educational attainment and their eventual class destinations [. . .] a true meritocratic society would be one in which an individual's class origins have no bearing on their educational attainment. Their educational attainment would be the primary if not sole predictor of their later social class, and the associations between an individual's original social class and their eventual social class weakens as education begins to mediate it.

Is Scotland's School System Meritocratic?

The test of whether Scotland’s school system can be considered meritocratic would be to see to what extent the system can hold up to this notion of meritocracy in practice. The educational system sits within a society of values and principles, so this will also play a part in determining whether schools are successful in creating a meritocracy. Within this, we need to consider what the aims of education in Scotland are, implicit or otherwise, and how effectively these fit with the goals of a meritocracy.

What Is the Attainment Gap in Scotland?

Scotland, if aiming to be meritocratic, faces an uphill struggle to achieve this, given the current attainment gap. The attainment gap described the difference in attainment between the higher and lower socio-economic classes throughout school, which is more prevalent in Scotland than in many other countries, according to a recent PISA report (McCluskey 2017; 26). By the time they leave primary school, those children who are entitled to free school meals are significantly behind their peers (McCluskey 2017; 27).

This gap in children’s attainment has been measured in Scotland to be there at the age of three and begins to widen in certain domains by the age of 5; from there continues to widen throughout school (Ellis, S. and Sosu, E. 2014; 8). The attainment gap in Scotland has a significant impact on individuals' future outcomes, with those from lower socio-economic backgrounds less likely to go on to university and more likely to go on to training or unemployment, which directly affects their future earnings (Ellis, S. and Sosu, E. 2014; 13). As the OECD (2015; 68) put it:

‘Who you are matters a great deal more in Scotland than what school you attend, and “who you are” is defined largely in terms of socio-economic status'.

It is still the case that ‘the big factor that impedes the ability of Scottish children to use schools effectively is socio-economic status’ (OECD 2015; 60). Socio-economic status refers to more than just the financial status of a child and family it also refers to aspects such as their culture, values and health. A child from a low socio-economic household will often have problems learning effectively for various reasons related to these outside school features of their lives. Within Scotland’s schools, children from low socio-economic households face barriers, and these barriers are embedded in the schools' practices and how they conduct relationships with children from these less educated families (OECD 2015; 62).

Another factor which contributes to the attainment gap is the existence of 100 registered private schools in Scotland (OECD 2015; 36). The mere acceptance of these private schools does mean that Scotland allows a high standard of education to be bought which would counter the notion of meritocracy. There is also some evidence to suggest a downturn in attainment among lower attainers, and with ‘pressures to reduce public spending, the ‘gap’ then will not reduce and may indeed widen’ (McCluskey, pp.28). Within the wider context, 'the gap between the rich and the poor in Scotland is average for the comparator group [in the OECD nations]…[yet] young people from the lowest SES [social economic sector] backgrounds in Scotland perform well below their peers in the Netherlands, Korea, Canada and Finland. (OECD 2015; 61). It is clear there are still things for Scotland to learn from these countries, so there is still quite a way to go.

A representative example of the gap

A representative example of the gap

Countering the Attainment Gap

However, Scotland’s education system has many features which work to counteract any negative impact felt by children because of their social class. In order to close the attainment gap, there is a goal to provide sustained employment, financial security, improved neighbourhoods, and improved health care to free schools up to focus on educational goals(OECD 2015; 49-50). These measures aim to ensure a child’s socio-economic class has as few detrimental effects on their education as possible.

The most obvious feature of equality in Scottish education is the ‘fundamental principle of the public education system in Scotland that education is free at the point of delivery to the pupil and their families’ (OECD 2015; 36). This notion of education accessible to all is crucial for the notion of meritocracy. Scotland also has schemes in place to reduce disadvantage, such as offering free preschool places from the age of three (or two if from disadvantaged households), which is ‘a key element in addressing the early education gaps’ (OECD 2015; 68).

Scotland has introduced earlier nursery education for free as research has shown that ‘inequalities in outcomes begin early in life and before children start compulsory school’ (OCDE 2015; 67). This move is founded on the basis of many empirical studies which have ‘shown that investment in preschool delivers lifelong benefits through more rapid cognitive and social growth’ (OECD, 2015; 31). Scotland has also pushed for greater breadth in the curriculum which acts to ensure cognitive growth from the variety of experiences, as it is this variety which children need in order to grow fully (OECD 2015; 41). This inclusion of breath then aims to counteract any lack of experiences children might encounter outside of school, particularly those children from low socio-economic backgrounds.

However, it seems that this is not enough to counteract missed opportunities in early development in children as the gap proves to widen throughout school. Another way Scotland is attempting to improve this inequality is through parental engagement so that disadvantaged children’s home lives become as educationally advantageous as the home lives of their more socio-economically advantaged peers. Parental engagement is being encouraged within Scotland as this acts to empower parents of low socio-economic into believing their actions have value for their children's educational outcomes, which is necessary if issues related to children’s original social class are to be overcome and attainment of poorer children to be improved (McCluskey 2017; 30).

Scotland’s schools are also placed under the control of the local authority, meaning that schools are able to be tailored to their specific needs for that community and are able to respond to the local needs and wants from schools to enable children to achieve and succeed in later life (OECD 2015; 36). Scotland schools are highly inclusive, and it is common for children from different socio-economic backgrounds to attend the same schools (OECD 2015; 14). This inclusiveness acts to ensure that there is a social priority of community, and society benefits from this as a whole because ‘a high general standard hinges on exposing all children to challenge, but in shared settings where the presence of strong learners is a source of support and encouragement to weaker learners’ (OECE 2015; 33).

This approach also lends itself to containing social inequalities as levels of education, as well as cultural and economic resources, are not necessarily inaccessible to the lower socio-economic classes as the majority of socio-economic classes are educated together. In general terms, a child’s original social class does not determine the type of education they are able to receive.


What Are We Teaching?

Biesta (2009; 36) points out that there is a need to question what education is meant to be achieving and who this is meant to be for as what might be effective for one subset of students may not be for another . Often these questions of ‘what is education for?’ are answered with the academic subjects we place value on within the curriculum. The value of subjects such as maths and language over vocational skills is based on the access it provides for ‘particular positions in society and this… is exactly how reproduction of social inequality through education works’ (Biesta 2009; 37). This reproduction of inequality is counter-intuitively supported by the more disadvantaged, as there is always the notion that these benefits are attainable. However:

‘There are cultural and organisational factors within schools that act as barriers… These factors include curriculum and examinations, teacher values and expectations, teaching style, pupil grouping practices (e.g., “setting”), and resource allocation practices (which students get which teachers?)’ (OECD 2015; 41).

There is also the process of inter-generational ‘opportunity hoarding’ which Mcknight (2015) found when parents from higher socio-economic households were able to protect their children from any downward mobility which may have happened if educational attainment were the only way to achieve in society. This ability to buy their children protection from socially falling is something that Scotland’s society cannot counteract. A desire to prevent harm to ones own children, even if only in terms of social status, is something Scotland is willing to allow people to do. It is also the case that those from more advantaged backgrounds have resources beyond education, such as economic and socio-cultural resources, that may be of more value to employers than educational attainment (Goldthorpe 2003; 237-238).

There is no motivation for employers to hire based on educational attainment alone when other ‘non-meritocratic’ factors which come from one's social background are of greater value to them. A true meritocracy almost requires a lack of family ties with children being adopted by the state, so these outside factors can be minimised or eliminated. Similarly, there are class-linked differences in opportunities taken, as when children of average ability are considered, it is those from higher socio-economic backgrounds who are ‘almost twice as likely to opt for academic courses as are those of working class origins’ (Goldthorpe 2003; 235). Goldthorpe (2003; 236) suggests that this may be because the working-class children are more ‘risk averse’, which can be considered rational with the inherent lack of financial stability.

As Scotland aims for the four capacities (successful learner, confident individual, responsible citizen and effect contributor), "What is disappearing from the horizon…is a recognition that it also matters what pupils and students learn and what they learn it for" (Biesta 2009; 39). If Scotland is to be a meritocracy, it's necessary that there be a focus on the emancipation of the lower classes from the circle of social reproduction and oppression. Educational attainment is seen as a way to achieve this for the lower classes, but Scotland’s curriculum focus is not on students achieving grades but more focused on what kind of adults they will become for the future society.

Scotland’s Aims Are on the Right Track

In conclusion, Scotland’s education cannot be considered to be a reflection of a true meritocracy because of the hierarchical society that the educational framework sits within. Scotlands government is well aware that it does not fit the definition of a meritocracy, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is quoted as saying, 'I’m in favour of the principle of meritocracy' (Torrance 2015).

Perhaps if meritocracy is considered on a sliding scale, though, Scotland has many features which edge it toward that end. Scotland’s goals of an equitable society and, within it, an equitable education system lends itself well to the ideal notion of a meritocracy. Meritocracy itself, though, seems to be unattainable without the removal of social factors in people's lives and so may always be out of reach. Scotland’s aims are on the right track and, with more research and investment, may come even closer to its ideal.


Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (formerly: Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education), 21(1), 33-46.

Ellis, S. and Sosu, E. (2014). Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available online at: [accessed 15 sept 2017]

Goldthorpe, J. (2003). The myth of education‐based meritocracy. New Economy, 10 (4), 234-239.

McCluskey, Gillean . (2017) Closing the attainment gap in Scottish schools: Three challenges in an unequal society Education, Citizenship and Social Justice. Vol 12, Issue 1, 24 - 35.

McKnight A. (2015) Downward mobility, opportunity hoarding and the ‘glass floor’. Report, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, London, June.

OECD: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2015). Improving Schools in Scotland: An OECD Perspective - OECD. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Sept. 2017]

Torrance, D. (2015). The trouble with Sturgeon’s support for a meritocracy. The Herald, 16 February, [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Sept. 2017]

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.