A FEW months ago I confessed in print that I failed the 11-plus. It took more courage than I expected. Would it make readers look at everything I wrote in a different light? Seeking out successful 11-plus failures, I found only the Archbishop of Canterbury and Sir Bernard Ingham, which was not altogether encouraging.
But I am glad I did write it. I was inundated with letters from other 11-plus failures, some almost too painful to read. There were brothers who were separated by a few marks, catapulting one up to the middle classes, the other to a secondary modern and a life of manual labour. There was the hitherto bright girl who was singled out among all her friends for unexpected failure. It led to drink, drugs and self-destructiveness for years until the Open University eventually rescued. So many people wrote to say that their whole lives had been blighted at the age of 11. Despite later success, they still carried with them a stigma. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
When ideas about IQ are put into practice in the real world, they can be lethally dangerous. Seventy per cent of the population failed the 11- plus, all of them branded as rejects. Whatever the merits of intelligence testing, the 11-plus was a monstrous social trick masquerading as science. In Wales 40 per cent of children passed because 40 per cent of secondary school places were in grammar schools, while some areas only had grammar places for 8 per cent. Then there was the problem of girls - they were far too clever. Girls did better than boys at the 11-plus exam but there were more grammar school places for boys - so they fixed a minus score handicap for girls. (Remember that next time someone bleats about any kind of positive action for women.)
Last week the Government's Economic and Social Research Council published research that breathes new life into all the spectres raised by the American sociologist Charles Murray in The Bell Curve. Peter Saunders of Sussex University plunges into a bitter controversy by claiming that we now live in a meritocracy where the brightest and the best of all social classes rise to the top on brain and good attitude alone.
The headlines have focused on a minor aspect of this research in which he claims that the type of education they get matters little - private schooling is a waste of money. But Professor Saunders has his nose in the statistics, and the world around him escapes his observation. The middle classes have always secured the best education in both sectors. Either they pay through house prices in salubrious suburbs with good schools, or they buy private places.
Why, he asks, do middle-class children still have so much more chance of becoming middle-class? Because they are more intelligent, by inheritance, he answers. In his meritocracy the middle classes have become a self-perpetuating super-class, while the lower orders are trapped forever in a gene pool of stupidity. Horrible.
It is tempting for the well-off to believe him. It justifies our position: the intelligent man in his castle, the stupid man at his gate. Since I live only a few stones' throw from Brixton, up in flames last week, so near and yet a lifetime and a world away, I might like genetic reasons to justify my children's success against those Brixton boys' failure.
Professor Saunders's study is a curious concoction. Like so much sociology there lurks a hidden ideology masked by a veneer of science. He has taken his research from a much used cohort of 17,000 children born in one week in 1958. He examined their fathers' social class, and their test scores at 11 and 16. Then he looked at the jobs they were doing at 33. Not surprisingly, he finds that middle-class children are three or four times more likely to end up middle-class themselves and five times less likely to end …