The British Social Attitudes Survey and the Myth of Meritocracy

The latest findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey were released recently. The survey involves over 3,000 interviews annually and participants are selected using a technique called random probability sampling.

The chapter on peoples beliefs about ‘meritocracy’ is especially interesting in the context of education. Meritocratic factors are seen as being the most important when it comes to a person “getting ahead” in modern Britain….

  • 84% say hard work is important;
  • 74% think a good education is important
  • 71% say ambition.
  • 33% think knowing the right people is important.
  • 14% think that being born into a wealthy family was thought to be important
  • 8% thought that a person’s race/ethnicity was important

So since 1989, people believe that the importance of ‘ascriptive factors’ (which people are born with or into)in influencing where you end up has fallen. Your own individual effort and ambition is seen to be much more important!


Now this seems to be at odds with the actual facts – there is just too much evidence suggesting a strong relationship between private schools and the top jobs (you have to come from a wealthy background to get into a private school).

Just a couple of examples of the links between wealth (ascription) and ‘getting ahead’-

In this post I mentioned the following – Of 80,000 15-year-olds who’d been on free school meals in 2002, only 45 had made it to Oxbridge- compared to the high-end private Westminster school which averages 82 successful applicants every year

And in this post – quoting George Monbiot ‘A new report by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) shows that intelligent children from the 20% of richest homes in England are seven times more likely to attend a high-ranking university than intelligent children from the poorest 40%

You might also remember the post in December which reminds us that black students are much less likely to get into Oxbridge.

It may be that our society is more meritocratic than 20 years ago but class and ethnic background matter more than people think – the British public at large are surely here suffering from a ‘myth of meritocracy’ – perhaps because it is more comforting to delude yourself than face the stark truth that our society is still riddled with class inequalities?

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