Friday, June 14, 2019

Forest Schools: How Climbing Trees and Making Dens Can Help Children Develop Resilience

by Janine Coates, Loughborough University and Helena Pimlott-Wilson, Loughborough University, The Conversation:


Despite all the research that tells parents how good it is for their children to spend time playing outside, they are spending more time indoors than ever before. It seems that concerns about the dangers of climbing trees or getting lost means that many parents are nervous about allowing their children to engage in risky play.

But research suggests that this element of outdoor play has significant benefits for children and can help to develop their emotional resilience.

Over the last decade and a half, schools have started to recognise the importance of outdoor time for children – resulting in the development of programmes that take learning outside the classroom. One of these programmes which has increased in popularity over recent years, is Forest School.

What is forest school?

Forest School is an outdoor learning initiative which embraces outdoor play in wooded spaces as a tool for learning and development. In the UK, the Forest School movement can be traced back to the early 1990s when a group of early years educators at Bridgewater College in Somerset day went on a trip to Denmark.

They noted how the Scandinavian values of open-air living were embedded in the education system. Upon their return from Denmark, they developed the first Forest School in the college creche, followed by a B-Tech qualification in Forest School practice. The Bridgewater group set in motion the development of Forest School provision through structured training programmes for Forest School practitioners. Today the Forest School Association – the UK professional body for Forest School practitioners – has more than 1,500 members.

During Forest School, children and young people are provided with opportunities to explore the natural environment, experience appropriate risk and challenge, and direct their own learning. Research has shown that Forest School stimulates imaginative play through hands-on engagement with the natural environment.

In our research, which included more than 30 interviews with children aged between four and nine, we wanted to understand how play in Forest School might facilitate learning. We found that during Forest School, children felt more independent, and as a result, had a greater sense of personal, social and environmental responsibility.

Children felt that they were able to apply skills they had learned in school in more meaningful ways and developed a range of non-academic skills. Forest School encouraged them to think creatively – to step out of their comfort zone and take risks – and to work more closely with their peers. They also reported being more physically active during Forest School – learning how to move safely in the unpredictable and challenging space of a woodland.

Making movements matter

The World Health Organisation has recently argued that young children need more opportunity to play in order to grow up healthy. But despite the clear benefits, Forest School is still somewhat misunderstood.

To the outsider, it is often considered as a separate form of education provision – and indeed, there are some full-time outdoor Forest School nurseries operating in the UK, such as Wildawood Forest School in Cambridgeshire. But most Forest Schools operate within mainstream state schools, where children leave their classrooms for a half or full day, usually once or twice a week, to attend Forest School.

We spoke to children, headteachers and Forest School leaders in two primary schools and found that this bridging of formal and informal learning can be complementary to one another. Children and headteachers acknowledged that the school system can stifle children’s natural curiosity about the world. Children recognise that while they learn a lot in the classroom, this tends to be directed by teachers and focused on passing tests.

Headteachers also recognised the pressure children are put under from a young age, and of the need to frequently demonstrate pupil progression against set targets. Forest School, for both pupil and teacher, is an opportunity to move away from the monotony of classroom learning and instead to engage in hands-on, self-directed learning.

This gives children the opportunity to develop other skills beyond the academic – including negotiation, resilience and independence. And in this way, the blending of these approaches to learning ensures that children have opportunity to develop a broader range of skills. All of which, prepares them for later life, while helping them to harness a love of the great outdoors from an early age.The Conversation

Janine Coates, Lecturer in Qualitative Research Methods, Loughborough University and Helena Pimlott-Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Deciding on a Dissertation Format: Considering the Implications of a PhD by Publication

Professor Liezel Frick is a colleague in the Special Interest Group that focuses on doctoral writing. She has long considered the dimensionality of the candidate and their text and adds South African experience to our generally Australasian perspectives.
Unlike the traditional monograph style of thesis (a collection of sequential chapters, each reporting on a specific aspect of the project in a linear fashion), a publication-based format has greater variation in form. For example, it may consist of an introductory and conclusive chapter that explain the logic of the dissertation, and a number of publishable and/or published works that may include articles, book chapters and/or published conference proceedings (see Mason and Merga, 2018 for a multitude of options this format might take on), or a hybrid of the above-mentioned formats (see Odendaal and Frick, 2016 for a conceptual frame on this hybridity).
Often students do not have (or feel they have) control over deciding on the format of their doctoral dissertation – institutional policies, disciplinary practices, and supervisor preferences may govern their decisions. The publication-based doctorate is gaining more impetus internationally and across disciplines, yet both students and supervisors are increasingly being confronted by this choice without having the necessary pedagogical knowledge or tools to make an informed decision.
In addition, the forces that drive the push to publish have not always originated from the noble intention of developing PhD students into responsible scholars. Adherence to quality assurance mechanisms and addressing slow and low completion rates at the PhD level underlie many managerialist policies and practices. However, what is often not explicit in these debates is whose interests are primarily served by publishing during the PhD – institutional stature and ranking, the supervisors’ academic credentials, or the scholarly development of the student?
In a recent article (Frick, 2019), I have argued that institutional and supervisory imperatives should not be given precedence over students’ interests. Based on my own experience, the literature, feedback I received from colleagues on my work (thank you!), and the lively discussion on the topic during the recent videoconference of the Doctoral Writing SIG interest group, I offer the following questions for supervisors and students considering the PhD by publication format:
  • Why publish? Increased demands for shorter doctoral completion times, requirements to show greater accountability as governments and industry expect a return on investment by means of rapid and public dissemination of research results, and the delivery of employment-ready graduates all drive the push to publish. Beyond these institutional reasons, publication also holds potential benefits to the student, supervisor/research team, university, and doctoral education as a whole. Research dissemination through publication schools the candidate in essential communication skills and the publication process that is key to a further academic career. Publication makes doctoral research work accessible to a wider academic audience beyond the dissertation, and such exposure serves to build the scholarly reputation of the candidate, the supervisor(s), (where appropriate) the research team, and the university. Publication can serve as a comparable standard of doctoral excellence across disciplines and national systems, which is important given the mobility of doctoral graduates.
  • Are you familiar with the publication-based format? It might help to look at examples of completed dissertations within your discipline, and speak to other doctoral students and supervisors who have used this format – even those in disciplines other than your own. It should give you an idea of what is acceptable (also to examiners!) within the particular field of study. There is a lot to learn from others’ pedagogical approaches, as the work of Claire Aitchison and her colleagues (2012) have shown in their investigation of pedagogical practices when using this format. Mason and Merga’s (2018) recent article also offers an array of potential options that are worth considering. A further consideration is whether the nature of the project lends itself to this format, and whether the timelines associated with the type of project would facilitate or hamper completion should a publication format be followed.
  • What are your institutional guidelines and policies related to doctoral dissertation formats? There is a need for explicit guidelines to be provided to examiners of PhDs by publication, outlining the institution’s definitions and requirements, for example the requisite number of papers; status of papers (published, submitted for publication, publishable); handling of co-authorship; bridging sections and appendices. Many institutions now have specific guidelines for a publication format, but these may differ across (and sometimes even within) institutions.
  • Are you aware of the demands of a PhD by publication?  There is a myth that the publication-based PhD is an easy (or easier), quicker option to completing a PhD than the traditional monograph dissertation. This thinking has been shown by Håkansson Linquist (2018) to be flawed.
  • What makes the publication-based dissertation worthy of a PhD qualification? There is the risk that it may be a series of descriptive studies rather than a process to develop and reflect “doctorateness” in the sense of rigorous and sustained scholarship. The introductory chapter (beautifully called a kappe [cape] in Norway) is a particularly important consideration as it could help to establish coherence, and make the contribution and originality of the work explicit (see Frick, 2018). During our recent DoctoralWriting SIG online discussion, there was a likening of papers in the PhD by publication to creative works in a Creative Arts PhD. In the Creative/Performance Arts, the exegesis shows the transformation of the artist into a scholar, which was a really useful way to think about how the PhD by publication format in other disciplines could also make this transition clear to the reader.
  • What support mechanisms do you have in place? The PhD by publication implies a shift in the power dynamics in the student-supervisor relationship, in which the traditional apprenticeship model of supervision may no longer be appropriate. Supervisors need to be actively publishing themselves and provide appropriate support and advice from the outset, including writing support; scaffolded reading; journal selection; citation practices; possible financial implications (for example page fees); the institution’s policies and expectations; and care in choosing examiners. Thein and Beach (2010) add four supervisory practices that would support such an approach: mutual engagement of both the student and the supervisor in collaborative research; co-authored research, which provides opportunities for mentoring writing development; reciprocal review and evaluation; and networking. Paré (2010) makes a strong case for the development of language skills (both reading and writing) and whether we provide students with the space and opportunity to fail before exposing them to the scrutiny of journal editors and reviewers. Such opportunities include doctoral seminars (Lee, 2010), writing groups (Aitchison, 2010; Paré, 2010), writing retreats (Murray, 2010), and working paper collections (Casanave, 2010). We developed an online writing boot camp as another way of supporting our students (see Rule et al., 2018 [link to blog]).
  • To whose benefit will publication be? Some supervisors may see PhD by publication as an easy way to increase their own publication record, but it can come at a high cost to the well-being of the student. Considering that this route to the PhD might actually take longer (especially if the institutional requirement is that the included papers need to be published), there needs to be benefits for the student to offset the probable disadvantages.
  • Have you discussed the ethics of publication? Issues such as determining publishable units, possible journal selection, as well as author inclusion and order have ethical implications and relate to the question on whose interests are being served by publishing the work. The sooner these issues are discussed and negotiated, the less room there is for conflict later on in the process.
  • Are you ready for the feedback? In the publication-based doctoral dissertation, the supervisor roles include visible authorship (Paré, 2010) and publication broker who mediates reviewer comments (Kamler, 2010). Doctoral students (and their supervisors) may benefit from peer review during the publication process as formative assessment. Eventual publication may serve as an impartial indication (through blind review) of the originality and merit of the work. Yet reviews are not always favourable or kind. Supervisors need to carefully consider how to mediate such comments and support students to make sense of required revisions, as well as manuscript rejections (which can paralyse a student’s progress).
  • What is the role of the examiners? If a doctoral dissertation presents published work, then the question arises as to what role examiners play in the process. Are they merely there to put a rubber stamp of approval on the work presented towards a degree? Or can they still offer critique and suggest changes?
The PhD by publication is a viable dissertation option, provided that both supervisors and institutions understand the implications of choosing this format and offer the necessary support to doctoral students choosing this dissertation format. I maintain that the student’s interests need to be considered foremost – not the stature of the institution, nor the contribution possible publications would make to the academic standing of the supervisor(s). Careful consideration is necessary before formalising a particular doctoral format by means of institutional policy, as some students, projects and supervisors may be more suited to particular formats than others.


Aitchison, C. (2010). Learning together to publish: writing group pedagogies for doctoral publication. In: C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (eds), Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond. Oxon: Routledge.

Aitchison, C., Catterall, J., Ross, P., & Burgin, S. (2012). ‘Tough love and tears’: Learning doctoral writing in the sciences. Higher Education Research & Development31(4), 435-447.

Casanave, C.P. (2010). Dovetailing under impossible circumstances. In Aitchison, C Kamler, B. & Lee, A. (eds), Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond. Oxon: Routledge.

Frick, B.L. (2018). The original contribution: Myth or reality in doctoral work? In E.M. Bitzer, M. Fourie-Malherbe, B.L. Frick & K. Pyhältö (Eds.). Spaces, journeys and new horizons for postgraduate supervision. Stellenbosch: SunMedia.

Frick, B.L. (2019). PhD by publication – panacea or paralysis? African Education Review. DOI: 10.1080/18146627.2017.1340802

Håkansson Lindqvist, M. (2018). Reconstructing the doctoral publishing process. Exploring the liminal space. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(7), 1395-1408.

Lee, A. (2010). When the article is the dissertation: pedagogies for a PhD by publication. In Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond (pp. 12-29). Edited by C. Aitchison, B. Kamler and A. Lee. London: Routledge.

Mason, S. & Merga, S. (2018.) Integrating publications in the social science doctoral thesis by publication. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(7), 1454-1471. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2018.1498461

Murray, R. (2010). Becoming rhetorical. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (eds), Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond. Oxon: Routledge.

Odendaal, A., & Frick, L. (2018). Research dissemination and the PhD thesis format at a South African university: the impact of policy on practice.Innovations in Education and Teaching International , 55(5), 594-601.

Paré, A. (2010). Slow the presses: concerns about premature publication. In Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond (pp. 30-46). Edited by C. Aitchison, B. Kamler and A. Lee. London: Routledge.

Rule, P., Frick, L., & Fourie-Malherbe, M. (2018). Getting graduates to publish from their theses- an online writing bootcamp. Doctoral Writing SIG blog, June 12.

Thein, A. H., & Beach, R. (2010). Mentoring doctoral students towards publication within scholarly Communities of Practice. In Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond (pp. 117-136). Edited by C. Aitchison, B. Kamler and A. Lee. London: Routledge.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

I Acted Like a Complete Jerk to my Students Just to Prove a Point

by Alan Goodboy, West Virginia University, The Conversation:

Antagonistic professors hurt student learning, research shows. Volodymyr Tverdokhlib/

During a recent lecture, I purposefully antagonized students.

I belittled one student by criticizing him in front of others. I favored another student by telling other students they should be more like her. I responded impatiently to questions. I told one student his contribution to class was incompetent.

Yes, I felt like a jerk by doing this. But don’t worry, this was not a real college class. Fortunately, this was a video lecture. The “students” I antagonized in the video were actually actors. No students’ grades were harmed and no feelings were hurt.

So what’s the point?

As a communication studies professor who researches effective teaching, my colleagues and I purposefully antagonized the students in the video lecture to see how it affected other students’ ability to learn. Our acts were meant to be what is known as “instructor misbehavior.” We had student participants attend this prerecorded video lecture, then share their thoughts and take a test on the lecture material. We wanted to determine if being hostile to students caused them to learn less.

Levels of misbehavior

Not every bad thing that an instructor does is as bad as the ones I did for our study. Some are relatively minor, such as showing up a few minutes late to office hours. These types of things may detract from a learning environment, but students can recover easily from a few simple mistakes or inconveniences caused by a professor.

But some types of serious misbehavior can hurt the learning environment. These include taking four weeks to return graded assignments, not responding to student emails, deviating substantially from a syllabus or showing up ill-prepared.

The worst thing an instructor can do, from my perspective, is antagonize their students. It may be rare, but students regularly identify antagonism as the most significant misbehavior.

So what happened to those “students” who had the misfortune of having me as their antagonistic professor?

Impact on grades

In our experiment, college students were randomly assigned to one lecture taught by me without antagonism or the same lecture taught with antagonizing remarks. We found that students disliked the course content more in the lecture where I was antagonistic. Those students also scored between 3 and 5 percent lower on a quiz of the material.

One of the most surprising findings is that the “best” students’ learning was compromised the most. Those who most valued their learning opportunities and who worked the hardest in the face of distraction lost an average of 5 percent on the quiz.

Mindful communication

College professors have choices about how they communicate with students in the classroom, even if they subscribe to a “tell-it-like-it-is” philosophy. It’s not just about the quality of the content. It’s also about how that content is communicated. Students deserve to be taught in optimal learning environments, and for that to happen, professors need to lay off the antagonism. When they don’t, it could drag down the entire class.The Conversation

Alan Goodboy, Professor, West Virginia University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A Thesis (Often) Needs a Big Idea

by Pat Thomson, Patter:

Everyone knows that the thesis has to make a contribution. No probs. Well yes, there are actually probs. At the end of the research it can be hard to find one. Contribution, where is it?
You're exhausted from generating all that data and trying to make sense of it. You have descriptions of what you think you can say - and categories. Categories galore – themes and key points. And you can talk about how at least some of this is new. But you can’t seem to get past what you have done. You are just too close to your data.
The too-close stuck-ness often appears at one or two points in thesis writing: (1) not being able to work out how to break the results up into chapters or (2) not being to write a 'discussion'.
What’s stopping you? Well maybe what's missing is The Big Idea that is going to make everything come together and hang together.
A good (social science, arts and humanities and some sciences) thesis depends on you finding your Big Idea. The one sentence which sums up what it is that you think you now know that you didn’t when you started. The one sentence that lets you construct the chapters and say what they add up to.
Let me give you an idea of how The Big Idea might work. Suppose I have researched people who are writing their PhDs. I've interviewed them and read their texts.
I can see from the interview transcripts that the interviewees often experience periods where they are unsure of what they are writing. I can see that most of them are reluctant to make claims that are too bold. I can see that most of them struggle with structuring their text and they fall back to the default  IMRAD structure. I look to see what is lacking from their accounts and I see people variously not yet knowing how to write a big argument and not feeling suitably expert.
What Big Idea might encapsulate that set of results?
In this case it was – yes this was an real research project done by Barbara Kamler and me – it was the notion of text work/ identity work. The idea that text and identity work were inseparable and produced and reproduced each other. Gaining authority over the text led to the doctoral researcher feeling more like a researcher. Presenting at a conference as an expert on a topic made the researcher feel more like a researcher and they carried that sense of authority back into their writing and wrote a little differently.
So if we had written our research as a thesis or scholarly monograph, then Barbara and I would have structured our text around The Big Idea of text work/identity work. And it might have looked a bit like this:
  • The problem - doctoral writing and doctoral researchers struggling with writing
  • Introducing key concepts - writing as a social practice, theories of identity,
  • Reporting methodology research design and audit trail of the research
  • Writing in progress, identities in formation - the various processes used by doctoral researchers to get on top of their text
  • Texts in formation - analysis of some texts and interview material to show where and how doctoral researchers were able to make identity and/or text shifts or were stuck
  • The literature review and discussion of results as key sites for text work and identity work
  • Introduction and explanation of the notion of text work/ identity work, examining the practices and organisational cultures that supported and hindered tw/ iw formation
  • Concluding by naming the contribution - text work/ identity work with implications for practice and policy, referring back to the discussion.
Well, we didn’t write this book.
(But a lot of the material can be found in the book we did  write for supervisors Helping doctoral students write).
Finding the Big Idea isn’t always easy. And of course some people do get away without one. However, most people do need The Big Idea to make their argument.
The Big Idea is your one minute answer to the question,  What did you find in your research? And you don’t have to wait until someone asks you this question. You can ask it of yourself, particularly as you are working with your data, what it is that you think that you can see emerging? And as you get to the point where you start writing, ask the What did you find? question then – it’s a really helpful start to planning your thesis structure.
Focusing on Your Big Idea is not as scary as 'making the contribution', 'discussing the results'. The Big Idea is a scaffold to the necessary thinking and writing. Getting hold of it and saying it in simple straightforward words also helps you write an abstract or a road map, plan chapters by amassing the pieces necessary for storyboarding or writing chapter  Tiny Texts. That's because starting with your problem and working right to the Big Idea - drum roll, Ta Da - gives you the red thread that will guide the reader through the text.
Do I write like this? Oh yes absolutely. I always sort out my Big Idea when I start to write a paper or a book.
And it was actually my own PhD supervisor who taught me that The Big Idea was helpful as a writing process. He once gave me twenty four hours to come back to him with my thesis chapter outlines. He didn't suggest I needed a Big Idea, as I remember it, but I found I had to have one to get my task done within the time limit he set.
And afterwards I learnt that getting The Big Idea and an outline made my writing go really quickly (thanks Richard). So I do the same. I always ask for The Big Idea from the doctoral researchers I work with too.
See also:
Photo by Rids on Unsplash

Monday, June 10, 2019

Outdoor Learning has Huge Benefits for Children and Teachers: So Why Isn't it Used in More Schools?

by Emily Marchant, Swansea University; Charlotte Todd, Swansea University, and Sinead Brophy, Swansea University, The Conversation:

Simply taking lessons outside can do wonders for children’s education and well-being. legenda/Shutterstock

Research shows that healthier and happier children do better in school, and that education is an important determinant of future health. But education is not just about lessons within the four walls of a classroom. The outdoor environment encourages skills such as problem solving and negotiating risk which are important for child development.

But opportunities for children to access the natural environment are diminishing. Children are spending less time outside due to concerns over safety, traffic, crime, and parental worries. Modern environments have reduced amounts of open green spaces too, while technology has increased children’s sedentary time. It is for these reasons and more that many think schools have arguably the greatest potential – and responsibility – to give children access to natural environments.

This is not just about improving break times and PE lessons, however. Across the UK, teachers are getting children outdoors by delivering curriculum-based lessons in school grounds or local areas. A variety of subjects, such as maths, art and science, are all being taken outside.

Teachers are taking pupils into local natural areas to learn curriculum-based subjects. springtime78/Shutterstock

Although there are no official statistics on how much outdoor learning is used, researchers have seen that its use is increasing. And while it is not part of the country’s curricula for year three onwards in primary schools (age seven up), these outdoor initiatives are supported for all ages by the UK government, which has invested in the Natural Connections project run by Plymouth University, for example, and Nature Friendly Schools run by The WildLife Trusts.

However, despite the support, outdoor learning is still underused in primary schools – particularly in the latter years, when children are aged between seven and 11. So if there are such big benefits to outdoor learning, why isn’t it happening more often? For our recently published study, we spoke to teachers and pupils to find out.

School adventures

Through interviews and focus groups, we asked teachers and pupils their opinions on outdoor learning. The participants we spoke to all take part in the HAPPEN project, our primary school health and education network. These educators and students (aged between nine and 11) engage in outdoor learning – which we classed as teaching the curriculum in the natural environment – for at least an hour a week. Overall, the participants spoke of a wide range of benefits to pupils’ well-being and learning. However, a number of challenges also existed.

The pupils felt a sense of freedom when outside the restricting walls of the classroom. They felt more able to express themselves, and enjoyed being able to move about more too. They also said they felt more engaged and were more positive about the learning experience. In addition, we also heard many say that their well-being and memory were better. One student commented:
When we go out to the woods we don’t really know we’re doing it but we’re actually doing maths and we’re doing English, so it’s just making it educational and fun at the same time.
Teachers meanwhile discussed the different approach to lessons, and how it helped engage all types of learners. They also felt that children have a right to be outdoors – especially at a time when their opportunities to access the natural environment is limited – and schools were in a position to fulfil this.

Importantly, the teachers spoke of increased job satisfaction, and that they felt that it was “just what I came into teaching for”. This is particularly important as teacher well-being is an essential factor in creating stable environments for pupils to learn, and current teacher retention rates are worrying.

Rules and boundaries

At first the teachers had concerns over safety, but once pupils had got used to outdoor learning as part of their lessons, they respected the clear rules and boundaries. However, the teachers also told us that one of the main reasons why they didn’t use outdoor learning more often was because it made it difficult to measure and assess learning outcomes. The narrow measurements that schools are currently judged on conflict with the wider benefits that outdoor learning brings to children’s education and skill development. It is hard to demonstrate the learning from outdoors teaching using current assessment methods. As one teacher said, “there is such a pressure now to have evidence for every session, or something in a box, it is difficult to evidence the learning [outdoors]”.

Funding was also raised an issue as outdoor clothes, teacher training and equipment all need additional resources.

Our findings add to the evidence that just an hour or two of outdoor learning every week engages children, improves their well-being and increases teachers’ job satisfaction. If we want our children to have opportunities where “you don’t even feel like you’re actually learning, you just feel like you are on an adventure” and teachers to “be those people we are, not robots that it felt like we should be”, we need to change the way we think about school lessons. Teaching doesn’t need to follow a rigid classroom format – a simple change like going outside can have tremendous benefits.The Conversation

Emily Marchant, PhD Researcher in Medical Studies, Swansea University; Charlotte Todd, Research Assistant in Child Health and Well-being, Swansea University, and Sinead Brophy, Professor in Public Health Data Science, Swansea University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Meritocracy as Neoliberal Mantra

Why is the idea of meritocracy – the idea that society should be organised so that anyone can rise to the top of the social pile, if they work hard and activate their talent – so normalized, so familiar, so ‘common-sense’?
In part it is undoubtedly because it holds within it some vivid elements of fairness. It is surely right that everyone should have a chance to progress and develop themselves, and to work in fields they are capable of working in, regardless of their background. It is right that establishments should not contract and ossify to keep the privileged inside their golden gates of power. It is right that people should not be discriminated against. All these points, which are generally part of the package of meaning that is meritocracy, are irrefutable.
Meritocracy is also part of our common-sense because it has been used consistently in the service of a right-wing agenda, which not only hinders democratic goals but relentlessly works to secure their exact opposite. Over the past few decades, narratives of meritocracy have been vigorously and inventively used to perpetuate entrenched privilege and rapidly extend inequalities. The notion of meritocracy has been deployed, in shape-shifting fashion, as perhaps the  core alibi for neoliberal capitalism. It has done so in a variety of guises, both socially liberal and conservative-authoritarian.
A key part of the problem is that meritocracy has always involved those who ‘succeed’ and rise to the top of the social hierarchy being given copious financial rewards. This element makes meritocracy a structural impossibility, as it creates the exact opposite of a level playing field. The co-existence of meritocracy with dramatic economic inequality was always a problem for those on the Left, from the moment meritocracy became a word in the mid-1950s (and indeed, even before it was coined as a term, the idea had plenty of traction as a discourse, from ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ in the US to Victorian self-help treatises [1]). In what is, to date, the first recorded use of the term, by the industrial sociologist Alan Fox in 1956 in Socialist Commentary (a journal described by Clement Atlee as a ‘useful corrective to the New Statesman’), the word is unproblematically a slur. ‘Why would you heap prodigious economic benefits on the already gifted?’ asked Fox, incredulously [2].
Unlike ‘equal opportunities’, ‘equality of outcome’, or ‘anti-discrimination’, the concept of meritocracy has always been inseparable from capitalism, as noted in the 1950s by social theorists and philosophers including Fox, Hannah Arendt and Raymond Williams. Meritocracy was also a problem, more notoriously, for the polymath Michael Young, for whom it became a way to lambast sectarian educational policies advocating grammar schools. In Young’s scathing 1958 fictional bestseller The Rise of the Meritocracy, which depicts past democratic progress and future social dystopia, meritocracy is also clearly a bad thing, leading through dangerous social division to a soulless, black market trade in brainy babies.  Yet at the same time, in Young’s entertaining yet often fairly obtuse text, the clearer socialist critique of meritocracy (which, to be fair, was never elaborated extensively at this time) was also obfuscated.
By the 1970s Young’s friend Daniel Bell had begun to promote meritocracy as a potential engine of the knowledge economy. Advocating greater social competitiveness probably did not seem to many as if it would hurt at a time when the welfare state was still flourishing. But by the 1980s, at the beginnings of the political implementation what we now call neoliberalism in the UK, the idea was being energetically deployed by right-wing think tanks as a possible conduit through which greater marketisation could be produced and collective provision could be dismantled. The ways in which meritocracy could be used as a destructive fiction and ideological tool, to gain consent for policies for increasing competition and destroying forms of collective or socialized resource, had been identified by Raymond Williams in 1958. Reviewing Young’s book, he noted that meritocracy went hand in glove with individualism, which ‘sweetened the poison of hierarchy’ and ran counter to solidarity and the task of common betterment.
The ideological function of meritocracy – as legitimation for contemporary neoliberal capitalism – has proved to be remarkably supple, as I track in my book Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility [3]. For Thatcher, the language of meritocracy was a way to stick two manicured fingers up to the old Establishment of ‘the Great and the Good’, and to galvanise white working and middle-class aspiration and support for selling off public assets including council houses and the railways. The social conservatism – the racism and sexism – of this period was roundly rejected by New Labour, who ushered in a new language of socially liberal meritocracy, in which anyone could ostensibly ‘make it,’ no matter their ethnicity or sexuality; and which sought to protect the very young through SureStart programmes and an emphasis on reducing child poverty.
Wealth redistribution was not on the agenda, though, which meant that although attempts were made to protect children, a battery of moral education parenting techniques were also launched to try to offset the continual effects of inequality [4]. Meanwhile, adults were encouraged into competitive individualism as the privatization agenda became ratcheted up through Public Private Partnerships and Private Finance Initiatives. Post-New Labour, the Conservatives became ever more punitive, moralizing about ‘strivers and skivers’ and attacking what they depicted as a ‘bloated’ welfare system.
Crucially, neoliberal meritocracy also gained its traction from cultural, social and media discourse across a variety of realms from schools to dating to work. Neoliberal meritocracy is characterised by the extension of competitive individualism into ever more areas of life: from enforcing rankings between, and within, universities through TEF and REF (the Teaching and Research Excellence Frameworks), and of schools and children through league tables and SATS exams (Standard Attainment Tests); to the reinvigoration of the talent show format under the auspices of reality TV, where people elbow each other out of the way to be the top apprentice or baker or singer, and to competing online to be the last one living and flossing in the computer game Fortnite.
In the process, neoliberal meritocracy has also been characterised by drawing, highly selectively, on the language of social justice – particularly anti-racism, feminism and gay rights – which expanded from the 1960s and by flipping it on its head. Anyone can make it, we are told, and we are offered parables of progress in the form of luminous media examples of the few who actually manage to ‘make it’ and travel up what is a really long social ladder.
And it is those who are least privileged and most affected by what we might call a ‘meritocratic deficit’ who are the most intensely incited to work hard and to believe in achievement, that nothing stands in their way but graft and self-belief  (Chapman). Women are encouraged to ‘lean in’, mothers to solve the work/childcare problem themselves by becoming mumpreneurs who set up their own businesses from home, and underprivileged young people to hustle and be ‘entrepreneurial’. This is the ‘meritocratic’ way: to make the ever-lengthening ladder harder to access in the first place, and to instruct the least privileged to blame themselves rather than tackling the structures that continually fail them.
In its current form, neoliberal meritocracy shows how the judgements about who has ‘merit’ and privilege can, in stratified and unequal systems, not only become increasingly contentious (Payne) but open to extreme abuse. Donald Trump uses and exploits the language of merit to validate who he will let enter the US and who he will lock up. His actions show how the struggle to maintain power co-exists with a language of merit and worth, to racist, sexist, abusive and inhumane effect.
Meritocracy is an obfuscatory neoliberal mantra which has been used for decades to powerful effect, providing a key justification for increasing privatization and inequality in the interests of a few. It has provided crucial ideological ballast to the process of extending capitalism further and further into our social, material, psychological and environmental lives with devastating consequences. Neoliberal meritocracy should be challenged, dismantled and replaced with genuine egalitarianism: including economic redistribution, robust anti-discrimination policies and initiatives, and free education.  Instead of neoliberal meritocracy we need policies and cultures which prioritise care, common ownership and collective development of our shared natural, physical, cultural and psychological resources [5] rather than fostering the lonely empowerment of individuals towards goals which, ultimately, both diminish and threaten us all.
[1] Todd, S. (2015) The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010. London: John Murray.
[2] Fox A (1956) ‘Class and equality.’ Socialist Commentary. May (1956): 11–13.
[3] Littler, J. (2018) Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility. London: Routledge.
[4] Jensen, T. (2018) Parenting the Crisis: The Cultural Politics of Parent-Blame. Bristol: Policy Press.
[5] Raworth, K. (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st century Economist. London: Random House Business.

Jo Littler works on the politics of culture and society. She is a Reader in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London, a co-editor of the European Journal of Cultural Studies and part of the editorial collective of Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture. Her book Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility (2018) is out now with Routledge.
Image: Rosie Kerr on Unsplash