What the Grammar School debate tells us about understandings of social justice in/through education: a tribute to Vicki Gardner

By Angeline M. Barrett

Vicki Gardner’s outstanding 2017 Masters dissertation, Grammar Schools & the ‘Mayritocracy’: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Social Justice in/through Education, has been published posthumously in the Bristol Working Papers in Education Series. This blog overviews the paper and announces the launch this year of the Vicki Gardner Prize for Outstanding Masters Research in Education Policy.

Grammar Schools and the ‘Mayritocracy

Critical policy sociologists, worried by growing inequalities and increasing corporate interest in the English public education system, will read Gardner’s work with interest. The sudden resurfacing of the grammar school debate in 2016, championed by the Prime Minister Theresa May, whose name is cheekily incorporated into the title, came as a surprise to many British education academics. Gardner states her own reasoned and unequivocal position on the ‘myth of meritocracy’ that underpins selective schooling very clearly. However, the main focus in this dissertation is not to argue her own position on grammar schools but rather to critically analyse the notions of social justice deployed in the popular debate triggered by May’s policy. By taking a specific contemporary debate as the “prism” through which to identify and analyse enduring discourses of global reach, Gardner produced a piece of research that was relevant beyond time and place. In short, she made a contribution to theoretical scholarship on social justice in education. The sophistication and theorisation of her arguments are remarkable for a researcher in the very earliest stage of her academic career.

Gardner was centrally interested in the battle ground of ideas, ideas concerning what is a socially just education and the relationship between school and society. She viewed meritocracy as a version of “the myth of the enterprising individual” (Apple 2001, 421), an assumption that is central to the neoliberal argument for the pseudomarketisation of public education. To understand the rules and parameters of the battlefield, she drew on Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony. Gramsci, a philosopher, sociologist, linguist and political activist, produced his most influential writing during 11 years of imprisonment by Mussolini’s Fascist government. His theory of hegemony explained how political elites use cultural power, alongside violent coercion, to control the masses. Cultural hegemony is created through discourse, i.e. verbal and written texts and associated practices that carry, create and promulgate ideologies. Discourses are hegemonic when they exclude other ways of reasoning. Schools are key institutions for transmitting discourses and hence creating public consensus around the world view of the ruling class. However, Gardner also argues that education has the potential to be the site for the reversal of hegemony when it is used for the development of critical consciousness. Education then is a site of contestation, complicit in the historic formation, deconstruction and reconstruction of public consensus or common sense.

Mass media is another site of hegemonic contestation where competing ideological discourses vie to represent and shape common sense. Gardner turned to broadsheet newspapers to find texts representative of the grammar school debate. Her analysis covered a total of seven articles from publications associated with the political Left and Right (The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph) published within two separate one week periods when the grammar school debate was hitting headlines.

She used the analytical tools of Fairclough’s Dialectic Relational Approach to dissemble and deconstruct the intent and messages of the newspaper articles. Using these tools, Gardner identifies strategies of legitimation and interrogates how social actors are represented in the articles. For example, she showed how authors on both sides of the debate named policies after the individuals, who champion them to imply that policy positions are nothing more than a personal agenda with no basis in research evidence or relation to broader public consensus.

Gardner’s analysis reveals the semiotic and deontic moves made by grammar school champions to represent them as a necessity, a democratic and counter-hegemonic redistribution of resources. She shows how proponents assert a horizon of possibilities for education in English constructed by a neoliberal world view of increasing economic competition. “Thence, the promoting message is that selective schooling is needed for every child to fulfill their potential and contribute to the knowledge economy” (Gazdner 2018, 33). Another strategy deployed by proponents of grammar schools is to represent May and her cabinet as “ ‘new’ intellectuals” (Gramsci 1999, 818), her ‘socially representative’ cabinet a contrast to David Cameron’s privately-educated elite. The grammar school policy is then presented as a virtuous ‘politics of interruption’ (Apple 2013, 66). By contrast, Gardner argues that the central rationale of meritocracy, that it expands opportunity for low income families, neglects the systemic and sociocultural dimensions of disadvantage and hence oversimplifies social class:

by exacting a problem-solution relationship that conceives of the problem as selection dependent on income, common sense is limited to the economic realm. (Gardner 2018, 40)

She finds that whilst social mobility is understood by commentators on the Right as a matter of individual human rights, on the Left it is understood as a structural issue or class formation. Both sides, however, reduce social justice to social mobility, treating the two as synonymous.

Ultimately, the discursive moves “to recontextualize concepts such as democracy, class equality and even social justice itself and, as such… disguise itself as counterhegemonic” (Gardner 2018, 41) did not win the grammar school policy argument in 2016-2017. Yet for intellectuals on the Left engaged in the “war of position” it was not a hopeful time. Gardner wrote her dissertation mere months after the Brexit vote in UK and the start of Donald Trump’s presidency in the US. Within her dissertation, Gardner holds onto and repeatedly returns to two concepts from Gramsci’s work. These tell us much about her hopes for herself and society. First is the notion of an ‘organic intellectual’, i.e. an intellectual engaged with civil society, affiliated with a class or group and who may assume a hegemonic or counterhegemonic stance. Gardner identifies herself as a “subaltern organic intellectual” (2018, 4). The second concept is the ‘cathartic moment’ and captures the utopian vision that steered Gardner’s work. The cathartic moment is the point where purely economic reasoning is superseded by ethical and political reasoning, so that:

structure ceases to be an external force which crushes man …; and is transformed into a means of freedom, an instrument to create a new ethico-political form and a source of new initiatives. (Gramsci 1999, 691-2) (cited on p.15)

And so,

the organic intellectual, be that journalists or the researcher herself – now needs to stand up from their desk and find a means of connecting this theory with practice (Gardner 2018, 44).



Vicki Gardner was a research associate at the School of Education, University of Bristol, where she worked with Leon Tikly, Angeline Barrett and Marie Joubert on a review of secondary science, technology and mathematics education in sub-Saharan Africa. She completed the M.Sc. Education in 2017, specialising in Policy and International Development and producing an outstanding dissertation. Her first degree was in German and Russian languages and she worked for four and half years as a German language teacher in secondary schools in Devon and the Bristol area. Vicki had hoped, and the staff who worked most closely with her had known, that the Masters programme would be the start of a long academic career. In her unexpected absence, we are publishing her dissertation in its entirety not just to remember Vicki, but because it is a piece of research which deserves wider readership.



-Apple, M.W., 2001. Comparing Neo-liberal Projects and Inequality in Education. Comparative Education, 37, 409-423.

-Apple, M.W., 2013. Can Education Change Society? New York/ Oxon: Routledge.

-Gardner, V., 2018. Grammar Schools & the ‘Mayritocracy’: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Social Justice in/ through Education. Bristol Working Papers in Education no. 09/2018. Bristol: School of Education.

-Gramsci, A., 1999. Selection from the Prison Notebooks. tr. Q. HOARE & G.N. SMITH. London: The Electric Book Company Ltd.


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