Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.
As the Olympics begins, I have a giddy sense of excitement. The coverage is the BBC at its best. I start to care about events you barely knew existed (Men’s 10m Air pistol anyone?), and cheer on each British athlete with immense fervour.
There is something magical about the Olympics. It isn’t just the hype. It is the stories behind each and every champion. There is something special about the sacrifices they have made, spending their teenage years in a mixture of holiday training camps in addition to the relentless grind before and after school, and seeing all of that effort culminate in competing at the very highest level.
We rightly applaud and celebrate them, and we also praise their highly focused coaches and families who have helped develop their extraordinary single-minded focus on achievement from a young age.
After the failure of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, during which Team GB only won one gold medal, finishing 36th in the medal table – below Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan – it prompted a period of furious self-flagellation in the media and serious soul searching among administrators.
Due to the brilliant decision of John Major as Prime Minister to introduce the National Lottery, this provided the funds for the “World Class Performance Programme” to start diverting funds into elite sport. It allowed athletes to devote themselves entirely to their training, paying their living costs and delivering a wide range of support services, from physiotherapy to sports science and nutrition.
Extra funds were also invested in greatly improved facilities across a range of different fields. The talent development programmes that made sure promising athletes were funnelled into their best sport at a younger age. All of this work has led to Team GB hugely improving its performance at Olympic Games, finishing 4th overall in Beijing 2008, 3rd in London 2012, and 2nd in Rio 2016.
Why do we think about academic and intellectual achievement so differently? Why do we regard the selection of children for academic ability and potential so anathema, yet ruthless and narrow selection for sporting prowess is regarded as rightly necessary to develop the leading stars of the future?
We need to focus on developing our brightest and most talented people, in a range of different fields, from a young age – and do this irrespective of their social background. As the Prime Minister often says, talent is evenly distributed in this country, but opportunity is not. We need to rediscover meritocracy in Britain.
The truth is that in order to do so, one is confronted by a difficult problem. How to discover and develop talented children in the population at large when the ladder of opportunity has so many rungs missing? And how do you give the best possible opportunities to such children once you have discovered them?
Adrian Wooldridge, Political Editor of the Economist, in his new book The Aristocracy of Talent argues that the way to do this is to revive two ideas that were at the heart of the meritocratic movement until the “progressive” reforms of the 1960s: IQ testing and academic selection.
We know the arguments about the 11 plus – the Left argues that dividing the country between sheep and goats at 11, on the basis of one test at a very young age, does immense harm to those who failed in the process; the Right retorting that it gave unique life chances to bright working class children who were identified early and given life changing opportunities.
The best way forward is to learn from the failures and successes of the past. We don’t need a national 11 plus in the old style. We need more of a variegated school system that has lots of different types of schools from technical schools to music schools and arts schools, but which also makes room for highly academic schools in the state sector.
We have already provided the material for this with school academies – Brampton Manor Academy, for example, is situated in Newham, East London, with one in five children eligible for free school meals. The sixth form is highly selective (on the basis of GCSE grades), and it cultivates a highly academic atmosphere, with intensive Oxbridge training as well as a host of extracurricular subjects. Last year it won 55 places at Oxbridge – their method is working.
The Government could push this revolution further by allowing academies to select at 11 – not with an 11 plus, but with IQ tests developed precisely to avoid being susceptible to intensive tutoring that is all too common in preparation for that exam. This would not just be for the typical “academic” subjects.
For example, we should turbocharge the intake for our university technical colleges (which start at 13-14 years old) by scouring the country and actively selecting children with special aptitude in technical, engineering and design skills. These are the children who will go on to build our future high tech manufacturing capacity, or develop the sort of innovative ideas that will help us achieve Net Zero by 2050.
Wooldridge argues that, in addition to this, we could create a system of fully-funded national scholarships, awarded on the basis of a combination of IQ and social need, that would allow children to study at any school in the country – opportunities to be selected for this would happen continuously throughout secondary school, lest late developers be missed.
Private schools would be forced to open up a certain number of places to these students. These national merit scholars would be given free university education in return for agreeing to spend at least 10 years working in the public sector.
This would address the public sector’s growing problem with attracting high flyers, particularly in IT and tech. It would repair the fraying link between public service and intellectual excellence. As government and governing becomes ever more complex, and we demand more from our teachers and other public servants, we should try and ensure that more of the most academically able students are incentivised and trained for life in public service.
I know that real life is not the Olympics. Yet training and developing our most able young people for the future will not just be important for identifying hidden talent, but it will benefit all of our society. It is mad that the only type of selection that is verboten in the state sector is academic, when the wealthy can just pay for it.
Let’s rejuvenate the idea of meritocracy, and truly ensure that the most talented, from every background can get to the top. We might end up with better technical skills in industry, better civil servants, better teachers, and yes – much better politicians!