When even Eton doesn't want to be thought of as elitist ...

Equality may be a false god, but true meritocracy could be good for everyone
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HERE'S a thing: the Headmasters' Conference, which inspects schools in the independent sector, has just mustered Eton and discovered that it is "not elitist".

Can you imagine a worse end-of-term report for parents who have forked out the annual pounds 14,000 in fees - and that's without the frock coats? In my mind's eye, I see an irate army of county types, Arab Sheikhs and terrifying Russian businessmen hurtling out of their Range Rovers, armour-plated Mercedes and helicopters to demand their money back.

The inspectors discovered that parents were worried by Eton's "snobbish reputation". That they reported this concern without any indication of scepticism does not speak highly of their understanding of human nature. It may be true that even the parents of Etonians feel it de rigeur these days to bemoan snobbery. It is a trait we tend to observe acutely in others. A small amount of it can be charming, but only if it is entirely unaffected. The plutocratic grandfather of a German friend, noted scourge of pretension in the lower orders, was horrified to hear that his descendant intends to become a lawyer. "In this family," he thundered, "we hire lawyers, we don't become them."

Eton is a similarly elitist institution and it ill behoves it to start fumbling round for excuses. Besides the greenness of the playing fields and the expertise of the Classics masters, a significant reason for any parent to send their children there - or indeed to any grand school - is to network. You don't send your son off to swap rugby bruises with the heir to the throne but one entirely unaware of the potential power of influential friends.

This does however open up the question of what elitism - that most elastic of concepts - means and how much of it we want. It has not been a word often heard recently, even on the more adventurous fringes of the modernising Left.

But I sense that it is on the verge of recovering political respectability. In New York, a spokesman for the Met recently answered a hostile question on whether the Opera House was elitist with the answer that he very much hoped so, and that the aim was to make their thoroughly elitist productions accessible to the greatest number of people who would enjoy them.

This meritocratic definition of elitism is the best defence - whether you are an opera house executive, a newspaper trying to carve its niche at the top of the market, or a Radio 4 controller dodging the bullets aimed at anyone who seeks to reform a well-loved institution. It is not one you can make when price - as at Eton or the Royal Opera House - debars an overwhelmingly large number of people from gaining access to what is on offer. The trouble with meritocracy, as Groucho Marx very probably said somewhere, is that it's so damned expensive.

Any argument about elitism is inseparable from a discussion of egalitarianism. The hoary old exchanges between those in favour of maximising equality of opportunity and the standard-bearers for equality of outcome, achieved by redistribution, has been revived in spats between Gordon Brown and Roy Hattersley. For all their differences, they agree that greater equality is a fundamental goal.

It is a long time since the Left reviewed how useful the concept of maximising equality is. Outside the wilder shores, it has accepted that equality of outcome is impracticable and that attempts to engineer it would result in a strongly centralised, heavily miserable society - what the East Germans used to call "the equality of shortages". The Left still uses "equality of opportunity" as a lazy substitute. But the truth is that unless you unleashed a New Labourite Henry VIII to do to private schools what he did to the monasteries, people will use their greater wealth to maximise the opportunities of their children (by sending them to Eton, for example). It is very hard to stop them doing so. So hard, in fact, that no party aspiring to re-election would risk it.

But would a society in which a greater number of people fared well in terms of opportunity and material outcome, but which contained great inequalities, not be better than one that offered a lot more equality without much alleviating misery? Pre-socialist radical thought concentrated on the reduction of poverty as a primary goal. It did not concern itself so much with disparities of wealth after that. Yet after 1945, the gap between rich and poor came to obsess the Left. The same devotion to nominal pursuit of equality has afflicted education. Belief in this is steadily seeping away, although the official language remains unchanged. David Blunkett, who eschews selection, nevertheless believes that it is all right to allow children with certain special talents like sport or music to attend special schools. The same principle will soon be extended to schooling for promising linguists. It then becomes hard to argue against children who are very gifted at mathematics or any other academic subject being selectively educated too.

We might go the whole hog and encourage every school to specialise in something, as districts in some educationally enterprising American cities (such as Seattle) have done. The most uplifting aspects of widespread specialisation is that it extends way beyond the traditionally academic definitions of meritocracy. A child of modest academic ability who is passionately fond of basketball can opt to attend a school with brilliant basketball facilities. It would certainly be an improvement on our crude league table assessment of schools, which consigns so many to the disheartening category of being deemed to be not very good at anything.

Meritocracy is an idea whose time has come. The whole philosophical drift of Blairite thinking tends in that direction. The centre-left has not yet found a way to embrace it without sounding callous; snobbish even. But it will, because the alternative does not serve average achievers in schools well, let alone below- average ones.

We will then face a forgotten question, put by Michael Young in his study of meritocracies after the war: how ruthlessly can a society afford to implement such an idea? If we really assessed people by ability and rewarded them accordingly, what would we do with those who, however generous the interpretation, are left behind in the race? Young pointed out that the disadvantage of meritocracy was that it tended to produce a disillusioned, embittered under-class, isolated from and hostile to the rest of society and which took little part in civil society. I don't have the answer to this. But I would point out that the alternatives have not prevented something very similar from arising - without the compensatory benefits.