Our member, Dr Alice Bradbury (UCL Institute of Education, UK), talks about her new book, Ability, Inequality and Post-Pandemic Schools: Rethinking Contemporary Myths of Meritocracy (Policy Press, 2021).
The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-22 closed schools in the UK and around the world, bringing all normal expectations about schooling to a halt. This shock to the system provides an opportunity to rethink one of the fundamental principles of our education system: the idea that some children have more ‘merit’ or ‘ability’ than others.
In this book, I examine the idea of fixed ability as something measurable and innate, and how educational trends pre-pandemic revitalised this idea in UK schools, forming a ‘myth of meritocracy’. The book explores how the idea of ‘ability’ reinforces inequalities in education, an issue which became central in discussion of the impact of children learning at home during the pandemic. I examine the question of how the idea of meritocracy plays out in practice; how the idea of some children being naturally ‘high ability’ and others not, and practices associated with this idea, can work to reinforce classed and raced disparities in attainment.
I look in detail at two trends in education – the growth in the use and importance of data, known as datafication, and the growing influence of neuroscience in education, which have both reinvigorated discussions about how we classify and label children based on the idea of innate intelligence. I then consider how each of these might be challenged in a post-pandemic school system.
This book aims to ask significant questions about the idea that the education system is meritocratic, and whether we should endeavour to reinstate this idea as we rebuild a post-pandemic schooling system.
I have been researching educational inequalities in relation to policy and practice since leaving a teaching career in the late 2000s, and had written two previous books based on research projects in this area. With this text, I wanted to focus on a central argument about the relationship between ‘ability’ and the perpetuation of inequalities, and draw in the range of scholarship from critical neuroscience and critical data studies alongside some empirical data on classroom practices.
The arrival of the Covid pandemic as the book was being developed gave further impetus to the key issue of educational inequality and due to the major disruption caused, an opportunity to rethink some fundamental underlying ideas in the school system. At the time I completed the manuscript in 2020, my thoughts were very much influenced by the research I conducting at the time with UCL colleagues on the impact of Covid on primary education, and particularly the significant impact of poverty on children’s experiences, and how quickly ideas were established about which families would be successful in home learning.
This was combined with my long-standing interest in racial inequalities in education and use of Critical Race Theory. As I note in the book, the argument that meritocracy is myth which allows for the reproduction of inequalities by class and race has been made before, but I wanted to update how this connection between ‘ability’ as an idea and inequality operate, based on my interest in datafication and the ‘new knowledge’ of neuroscience.
The main argument of this book is that the idea of ‘ability’ and how it operates are one of the ways in which the school system in England reproduces social inequalities, contrary to claims of meritocracy and fairness. This is not a new argument, but one that has been discussed in depth for decades, as academics have repeatedly made links between the idea of fixed intelligence and its damaging relation to particular social groups, including the working class and some minoritized communities (such as Ball 2013; Gillborn 2010).
However, it is an argument that requires updating and contextualising, in this post-pandemic era, where the disruption to normal ways of life has allowed for some disruption to ‘normal’ ways of thinking about schooling. What I aim to do here is to consider how these two axes of ‘ability’ and inequality operated in the era preceding the pandemic, in all their contextual peculiarity, and in turn to use this discussion to ask questions about the future, post-crisis, education system.
This revisiting is necessary because discourse, as Foucault (1977) contends, operates in a particular historical and social context; thus we need to repeatedly consider how discourses of ‘ability’ and its proxies work to reproduce inequality in each period and context. I content that the era under discussion – that of the late 2010s – requires particular scrutiny as the operation of ‘ability’ evolved in new directions.
The political context of uncertainty related to Brexit, but where a ‘Great Meritocracy’ was imagined and equality of opportunity was idealised, provides a backdrop for this discussion of how current trends enliven the link between ‘ability’ and inequality; latterly, the latest uncertainties related to Covid-19 produce fertile ground for debate over the role of schools in providing ‘opportunity’ throughout the population.
As Ladwig and McPherson have argued, teachers’ concepts of ability ‘have remained relatively unstudied’ (2017, p. 344), despite their importance in contemporary education. Using data from a research project on grouping by ‘ability’, in this book I unpick contemporary discourses of ability and merit. This is my objective in writing this book: to illuminate how the idea of ‘ability’ has been re-imagined, re-inscribed and reinvigorated by educational trends of the last decade.
I focus on two particular themes which I argue have a fundamental impact on how we talk about and use ‘ability’ as a concept. These are: first, the influence of neuroscience and other biological ways of thinking about children’s ‘ability’; and second, the growth in the importance and use of data in schools, a phenomenon known as ‘datafication’ (Bradbury and Roberts-Holmes 2017b; Jarke and Breiter 2019). In different ways, these two trends have altered how the discourse of ‘ability’ operates, and thus how it reproduces disadvantage. There is potential, I warn, in both of these two trends, for the discourse of ‘ability’ as fixed to evolve in ways which further entrench inequality, and the post-pandemic era heightens this risk.