Politics & Society

The best books on Education and Society

recommended by Alison Wolf

KCL Professor Alison Wolf is an authority on education and the labour market. She recommends books on education and society, highlighting Icelandic pastoral neo-myth Independent People

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Why are you recommending that we read Michael Young’s famous 1958 work, The Rise of the Meritocracy? Is it still relevant?

This book is quite old now, although recently and quite rightly republished. It is an amazing insight into how society works, how families work, and how good intentions go astray. It is also really important that people realise that the term meritocracy, which we now wave around as if it was the one thing we could all agree on as a good thing, was actually coined for this satirical novel. The rise of the meritocracy is not seen as the arrival of nirvana: it’s seen as something which has a large number of downsides, both socially and particularly in the way individuals feel about themselves. We don’t all believe in the NHS any more, we don’t all believe in God any more – if we ever did – but somehow we are all meant to believe in meritocracy. And I think reading Michael Young’s satire is a salutary antidote.

What he describes probably couldn’t quite happen because he implies that we could have this talent to see absolutely clearly what people’s innate abilities were. The idea is that you would educate the people who are really able for elite positions, and end up with a society that is, first, just as ruthless as anything that was based on the family crest on your shield; second, destructive of individual self-respect, and third, intolerable to large numbers of parents.

Intolerable because some must fall down the ladder as well as some climbing up it?

Yes, but also intolerable because it’s all your fault, there is nothing you can do about it. Status is just about whether you are any good, which is just as horrendous as if it’s all to do with whether you’ve got the right colour skin or the right family tree. The idea that you are either born as one of the chosen or not is actually inherent in this notion of meritocracy.

Michael Young was interested in the motives that all human beings have and the way that societies change. I don’t think you ever could end up with a society in which people were all labelled precisely at birth and I don’t suppose for a moment Michael Young thought you could either. But he was writing a Gulliver’s Travels-type satire. And as a satire I think it’s brilliant. As a social scientist I think he captures superbly this interaction between how individuals feel and behave and larger social development, and that’s my own abiding interest. People make choices, they try to do the best thing for themselves, they try to do the best thing for their families. This is often not what bureaucrats in Whitehall expect and want them to do, but that’s how things get determined.

Do you think the reason people have seized on the word meritocracy to use in a non-satirical way here in the UK is because we have a consensus that we are just too far from a system in which people’s abilities bear any relation to their status?

It is true that we have got more worried about this recently, and it has been a big political issue – although not only here. The degree to which individuals all have opportunities is something that concerns most societies. I’m not sure why we are worried about our own record on this more than other countries. We have all this stuff about how the UK has uniquely bad social mobility but this is actually over the top: it depends which data you use, and we don’t have very good measures or information for most of the world, including much of Europe.

I suppose the reason is, first, that we have a government in power which set itself a goal of greater equality and greater opportunity and is staring disappointment in the face. And the second thing is we have changed our education system more than most other countries have. Most other nations don’t have this situation where you have a large part of the current middle class and elite having come up through one system now facing a system that is very different. Even though we know that most of the people that went to grammar schools were middle class anyway, those don’t make the good stories. The mythology and the feeling that you can go from the bottom to the top seems to be very important to how countries see themselves.

So from a recently republished book to one that was published by the author himself – J L Carr’s The Harpole Report.

J L Carr was another amazing human being. I have devoured every novel he has ever written, all superb and very idiosyncratic. The Harpole Report is a very funny satirical novel, very short. It captures what is eternal about a state-funded school system and also a time that seems almost innocent in the degree to which schools were left alone to do whatever they were doing. There’s also the endless war between the layers of the hierarchy, the teachers and the head, and then the head and the caretaker. I talked to one newly appointed head of a large high school in the States who said, ‘The first thing I do in any school is to sack the janitor, and that way I have lots of friends from day one.’

The janitor is an alternative seat of power that needs to be neutralised?

The Harpole Report is brilliant on that, brilliant on back-covering at every level, on how to write effective memos to the local authority. But it also makes you feel amazingly nostalgic because this a school in which they are not employing, as they would be now, three full-time administrative assistants just to collect data to send back to Whitehall, and in which there are inspectors, but Ofsted has not been dreamt of. It is a combination of the everlasting and the, ‘Oh my God, was it really like that?’ It was almost Eden-like if we’d only realised.

I was educated long enough ago, at a state primary school in a small town in West Berkshire, for this to be not completely unfamiliar to me. We had streams, there was the 11-plus class and then the other class, which is why I hate the 11-plus. But it was actually a wonderful school and it was in the middle of a newly built council estate with a great head and fantastic teachers. It was probably all right even if you were in the B stream. We learnt a lot, we had very old-fashioned teaching but we also had expeditions and we did plays. And I look at what year 6 is like now and really – I mean, being a top junior was the best year of my life!

It sounds idyllic. So why are you taking us next into the urban environment with The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs, and not her most famous book?

I think everyone has heard of The Death and Life of American Cities, which changed the way we think about cities. Through that book she stopped, not single-handedly of course, the destruction of inner-city neighbourhoods by driving great highways through them. But she was also an extraordinary woman in a whole range of ways: she had very little conventional academic background, she thought for herself and she came to her own conclusions. She basically thought, which I agree with, that cities are the source of everything that’s good in life. Her argument was that cities, which in the early days were just small trading and administrative posts, generated agriculture, not vice versa; because there was a market for something if you started proper production.

So I chose this book rather than Death and Life because it is actually about something much broader – the role of cities in the whole of human history and just how critical they are. When we are feeling down we all go and buy Country Living and dream about living on an isolated farm. But actually cities are where the ideas all come from, where all the wealth comes from. They are also much more environmentally friendly because you use much less energy if you live in the city than if you live out in the countryside.

Like Michael Young, Jane Jacobs is one of my idols. And her work links into my overriding interest in the interaction between human behaviour and institutions. Although in my academic work I have focused on the labour market and education, I like Jane Jacobs because she also talks about how institutions emerge from people’s daily life.

Your next choice, Education and the Working Class, is a much more focused look at English education and social class.

This is one of the few books about education that you can recommend to the general reader – it is based on in-depth interviews with 88 working-class families after their children had been through the grammar school system after the Second World War, when free secondary education was really opened up. Again, I think what it captures is a combination of the eternal and an England that has completely vanished. But it also exposes the complexities and the reality of social mobility. The sorts of families these children came from, the sorts of people they became – it gives you far more of a real feeling both for what was achieved but also the human cost. There was a gulf that was often created between socially mobile kids and their families, a conflict within families about whether they wanted their children to succeed or not.

Social mobility is such an issue in this country, it goes back to the fact that we have had this gigantic revolution in our education system several times over, which is more than almost anywhere else. And people who experienced one system are aware of what was lost, both bad and good, in a way that people in countries that have experienced much less dramatic change are not.

I think with the grammar schools, what people remember, even though this wasn’t the predominant aspect of it, were the children for whom their lives were completely changed. I suppose if you look at English history there has always been – even if small and narrow – a path by which a certain number of very talented children could progress. Most social mobility happens very gradually: your parents get a bit further than your grandparents and you want your children to get a bit further than you. But there has always been this belief that some children should be identified and encouraged and helped up. And that was after all the origin of most of the public schools.

I think that one of the reasons people do get so upset about grammar schools is that we feel we’ve lost this opportunity for the very bright and the very determined to make a leap. I’m not advocating a return to grammar schools because the 11-plus was brutal – it was a system that made the majority of 11-year-olds feel that their life was over in most respects. But I think we feel very strongly that we have lost something that was symbolically important and symbols matter in a society.

You have been a critic of mass university expansion, but isn’t it important to do that for, as you say, symbolic reasons, to expand opportunities? And to affect how individuals feel about their own life chances?

I’m not against it in the sense of thinking it should be rolled back or should never have happened. University expansion is and was inevitable but we just have to recognise that it changes the whole nature of education as well as the labour market. And yes, symbolism about opportunity is tremendously important – think of the difference between how most British people feel about Britain and how most Americans feel about America. The objective differences are nothing like as great as we think but it’s to do with the symbols and what we believe. On the university expansion question there is no way we could not have done it – the whole world has done it. But we have to be aware of the downside as well as the upside, which is partly that now anyone who doesn’t go to university finds the door slammed in their faces, whereas in the past you could come up via the shop floor or other routes.

So why did you decide to conclude your reading list with this Icelandic novel, Independent People?

Here are five books with something to say, not just about education but about people – all five make us realise how different our societies are from how they were. Independent People is the book that has just bowled me over in the last couple of years, more than anything else I’ve read. It is incredibly moving, about a poor Icelandic farmer who does not want to be dependent on anyone for anything. And that is his overriding value – a very classic value of small, self-supporting peasant farmers. They have this integrity and courage as well as this drive to independence. It is set in Iceland at a time when it was much poorer. The country has had a miserable history in many ways, but it’s not really about that. The book is great because of the author’s ability to create a world utterly different from ours, with a value system so different but also so totally human. I don’t know why he is not better known – he clearly is not obscure, he did win the Nobel Prize. But why hasn’t the whole of Britain read him? It is long, though – Independent People is for when you have a large chunk of time.

A true Nordic saga?

Yes, and I suppose there is an education theme here – the main character is a poet as well as a farmer. In most societies that do well there does tend to be a history of people being educated. And it is often either because they were great Bible readers or, as in the case of Iceland, there is this ongoing literary tradition of the sagas. Many societies have had oral poets. I know I’m notorious now for saying that you don’t grow an economy just by upping your education spending, but I don’t mean to suggest that education doesn’t matter. It matters enormously, but it’s in a much more subtle way. So if you want to find some social lesson here, what the novel does bring home to you is that the Nordic countries, which now are seen as such an enormous success across the world, also have this very distinctive past in terms of religion and literacy.

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Alison Wolf

Alison Wolf is a professor at King's College London and an authority on education and the labour market.

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Alison Wolf

Alison Wolf is a professor at King's College London and an authority on education and the labour market.