Boris Johnson: Inequality, envy and education

Boris Johnson’s Margaret Thatcher Lecture was always going to be controversial. The Daily Telegraph topped its commentary on it here with the headline, “Boris Johnson: some people are too stupid to get on in life”.

You can read the full text of his lecture here and make your own mind up about his speech.

Johnson used the rather odd metaphor of breakfast cereal to illustrate a theme of inequality, describing cornflakes as rising differentially to the top of a pack when it’s shaken. It’s a strange comparison. It’s quite hard to distinguish one cornflake from another and they really are all in it together when it comes to packaging but, strange symbolism aside, the thrust of his argument was that, “some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.” A silver spoon might have been relevant to his analogy.

In the most provocative part of his lecture Johnson referred to people with low IQs, saying that, “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 while about 2% have an IQ of over 130”. 16% of the UK population is more than 10 million people. That’s a lot of people to write off as “too stupid” to get on in life – although research suggests that using IQ as a single indicator is a massive oversimplification of the spectrum of human cognitive ability anyway. Labelling people in this way is a concern not just for them but for all of us, especially if we are living in a culture of increased envy and personal greed.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s 2009 book, ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’, argues that there are “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. Their detailed research suggests that outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries for each of eleven different health and social issues: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies and child well-being. These outcomes and their social and economic costs affect people across the wealth spectrum.

It’s too easy to treat the complexities of inequality and social mobility with lazy predictability and Johnson’s lecture has provoked inevitable political posturing. Few would argue that education shouldn’t enable people to be more successful and to lead more fulfilled and useful lives but Wall Street’s fictional Gordon Gekko is an unlikely role model. The ‘why, who, what and how’ questions about education are especially relevant to the debates about educational options for 11-year-olds and children’s subsequent development.

Johnson spoke of the need for “academic competition” and called for a form of grammar school to be re-established along with the return of an assisted places scheme, abolished by Labour in 1997, in which the state paid private school fees for gifted children from less affluent backgrounds.

A feature on the Equality Trust’s website here offers an alternative perspective.

Grammar schools don’t help with … educational inequality because they are designed to help those already doing well at school do better. This educational inequality affects social mobility, because educational performance is predicted by income. There is a straight forward relationship between parental income and cognitive development. Those with lower parental income score lower for cognitive development at an age 3 and the gap increases by age 5. And these scores are a good predictor for earnings in later life. Those higher up the income spectrum can buy their way into better schools either directly by going private or by paying a premium to live closer to a better state school. Where this remains the case it seems greatly misguided to think that improving the results of those who are doing well at school will increase social mobility. Equal opportunity, where the circumstances of a person’s birth are not strong predictors of their outcomes, requires a different sort of education system and a different sort of society.

Grammar schools have given some children better life chances. I’m one of them, but as an adult educator I’ve also worked with people who have only blossomed academically and personally after working hard as adult learners to overcome damaging assessments of their pre-adolescent ability. There’s a lot of focus on children who do well at primary school and how we can help them to do even better but is there a simultaneous call for the reintroduction of secondary modern schools and what’s the plan for the 16%?

What do you think of Johnson’s lecture and the issues that it’s raised?

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn:

3 Responses to Boris Johnson: Inequality, envy and education

  1. Pingback: WEA Director of Education blog post | Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the WEA

  2. Ann Walker says:

    It’s interesting to see subsequent comments by Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, reported in the Guardian on 14 December at

    The article says that,”Wilshaw hit out at the selective schools for being “stuffed full of middle-class kids” and dismissed growing calls for more grammars in the wake of a damning international report on standards in schools. The head of the Office for Standards in Education said demands for more grammars should be ignored, as they serve the top 10% of the population at the expense of the poorest.”

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