Here’s an example of how something like Obliquity works, from today’s Independent. There is research from LSE suggesting that the advantage of sending a child to a higher-achieving school may be more than cancelled out by the negative motivational effects of said child occupying a lower position in class relative to their peers. This is said to have a greater demotivating effect on boys than girls. Over two million children were studied, and it suggested that those in top class positions in primary schools had greater self-confidence and greater success in secondary school no matter which school they came from.
I have no idea whether this holds water – how many piece of ‘research’ are later discredited? Correlation does not in itself prove causality, and I tend to be naturally suspicious of such statistical claims of any sort. But the hypothesis seems plausible enough to cause us to question the more usual assumptions. And it might also lead us to wonder whether the emphasis given to the overt rating of performance in class is all it’s cracked up to be.