Socioeconomic inequalities in education III: Changes over time
The ultimate aim of much educational policy over the twentieth century was to reduce socioeconomic inequalities in education and thus the intergenerational reproduction of socioeconomic inequalities. It was a means to a fair and just society. Talented boys from disadvantaged backgrounds (and the focus was usually on males) who worked hard could succeed in the education system and thereby rise in social standing. The education system was fairer than any previous system of selection to high-status positions. It was theoretically “fairer” because power and money could not influence students’ grades, nor could friends and relations in education bureaucracies make a student successful. The curriculum and assessment procedures were rational, guided by a neutral centralized bureaucracy. Ideally, students’ performance in the education system reflected merit. Although few believed that education systems would suddenly become meritocratic, the expectation was that the role of social background in educational outcomes would dissipate and merit would ultimately govern educational success.