Res Publica

, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 267–284 | Cite as

Social Class, Merit and Equality of Opportunity in Education

  • Gideon Elford


The paper offers to substantiate a claim about the so-called Meritocratic Conception of how educational opportunities ought to be distributed. Such a conception holds an individual’s prospects for educational achievement may be a function of that individual’s talent or effort levels but should not be influenced by their social class background. The paper highlights the internal tension in the Meritocratic Conception between on the one hand a prohibition on the influence of social class on educational opportunities and on the other a permission to allow unequal educational opportunities on the basis of talent and effort. This tension obtains because individuals’ talent and effort are themselves subject to influence by social class. The paper makes a positive case for an interpretation of the Meritocratic Conception that resolves this tension in favour of an egalitarian version, such that social class represents an objectionable determinant of unequal educational prospects even when its influence is mediated through the cultivation of talent and effort. This argument is further supported through an explanation that the character of social class as a systemic social source of the structure of individuals’ opportunities makes it an objectionable influence on educational opportunities.


Equality Merit Education Social class 



I am grateful to the editors of Res Publica and to two anonymous referees for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.New CollegeUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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