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Laurence Inman’s Blog

THE LESSONS OF EDUCATION

18-12-2008

Wading into the age-old row about nature versus nurture, Laurence Inman argues that too many youngsters are sacrificed to academic tomfoolery.

Cyril Burt.

Not a name many people are very likely to remember these days. Sounds like a kindly old uncle. Or two uncles. Uncle Cyril and Uncle Burt.

But Cyril Burt, or Sir Cyril Lodowic Burt, to give him his full name, was probably responsible for more emotional harm to more British people during the twentieth century than anyone apart from Hitler.

In a radio talk which he gave in 1950 Burt asserted that ‘by carefully planned experiments, the psychologists have discovered what kind of problems an average child of such-and-such an age is just able to answer.’ This, he went on, ‘provides them with a kind of measuring-rod for assessing mental abilities.’

His tests ‘clearly revealed that intelligence is inherited much as stature is inherited.’ ‘Obviously,’ he went on, ‘in an ideal community, our aim should be to discover what ration of intelligence Nature has given to each individual child at birth, than to provide him with the appropriate education, and finally to guide him into the career for which he seems to have been marked out.'

Burt was a very influential man. He was Professor of Education at London University from 1924 to 1931, then Professor of Psychology till 1950. He was, in fact, the country’s leading educational figure psychologist. He did a lot of work for the LCC and was a major opinion-former in circles which decided the government’s educational policy.

His conclusions, that academic ‘ability’ could be accurately tested, was largely handed down rather than being dependent on environment and is to be found in roughly 20% of the population, chimed in exactly with that policy and with the public’s prejudices on the matter.

It was the rationale of the 11-plus exam, the grammar schools for the ‘gifted’ 20% and secondary moderns for the rest. It is a mindset which is so firmly entrenched in British thinking about ‘education’ that it looks like never being dislodged, no matter how much evidence is produced to oppose it. Even now, someone reading this will probably be thinking, ‘Well, I did okay from it. It lifted me out of one class into another.’

You never hear people say, ‘I’m so glad we had that system when I was eleven; it ensured I stayed in my place for the rest of my days.’

And yet, that was the case for eighty per cent of its victims.

It persists to this day. At the last school I worked at, the ‘leadership’ responded like trained donkeys to the tory ‘initiative’ or grant-maintained schools. (Or ‘grammar’ as the phrase inevitably translated itself in the minds of parents whipped into a frenzy of panic over their sprogs’ futures.)

Thousands, including pay rises and ex-gratia payments to the head and deputies, were wasted on a scheme which was later quietly abandoned.

We will never have a truly fair and just society until these ridiculous ideas are shovelled into the compost-bin of history.

Oh, and the big story about Burt was that after his death in 1971 it was found that many of the experiments on which he based his findings never actually took place, and that the results of many of those that did were pure invention.

Yes, he made the whole thing up to impress his political mates and earn a few brownie-points in his academic career.

So, if you’ve been involved in any way with schools in the last sixty years, you have been the victim of a cheap con-trick.

Merry Christmas.

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