Article by FEP researchers reflects on meritocracy in schools

Monday, December 11, 2023 - 16:33

A scoping review, published by researchers from the Faculty of Education and Psychology (FEP), highlights the importance of rethinking the way in which meritocracy is implemented in Portuguese schools.

The authors concluded that the forms of excellence and academic distinction, currently used by primary and secondary education institutions, could legitimize and increase social inequalities, given that students do not all start from a basic equality.

There is a set of external factors that influence the grades obtained in the assessment tests that students are subjected to. These factors are, for example, the origin of families with economic advantage, which facilitates access to the “tutoring industry”, and other mechanisms, such as the organization of classes, the allocation of teachers, and the modes of pedagogical work, which influence school results. These independent variables put young people from culturally and economically disadvantaged contexts in a disadvantageous situation.

"With this scoping article, we confirm that merit is a social construction in which multiple variables intervene and is therefore not the result of a purely individual effort," say José Matias Alves and Cristina Palmeirão, professors at FEP and co-authors of the paper.

This paper is "a reminder of the injustice practiced by the school institution, which constructs a paradigm of excellence based on false assumptions. In doing so, it perpetuates subtle forms of discrimination and school exclusion," they say.


Need for more humane, fair and inclusive educational systems

Considering the problem of justice and equity inherent to the logic of meritocracy in schools, the authors support the need to “rethink educational policies, at the macro, meso and micro levels, in order to promote more effective school justice, taking into account the individual characteristics of students and the contexts of each school”.

The researchers also argue that “meritocracy practices do not have to constitute an obstacle to obtaining fairer and more equitable schools. It is simply essential to rethink how meritocracy is implemented in schools, taking into account the heterogeneity of students, the pace of work and initial inequality”.

“Equality of opportunities (of access, attendance and success, etc.) and the enjoyment of educational goods is a basic imperative that all schools must pursue, promoting the skills and competences of each individual, thus preparing them to enter the job market and practice active citizenship.”, they state.

This will only be possible when the personalization of teaching is achieved, through the recognition of students' personal, social and cultural differences, and meeting these needs with differentiated pedagogical strategies.

The article “Meritocracy, Excellence and School Exclusion: A Scoping Review” is written by Marylin Regal Ferreira, José Matias Alves and Cristina Palmeirão, from Universidade Católica Portuguesa.