Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed?

By N. J. Mackintosh | Go to book overview
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FIVE
Declining educational standards

N. J. MACKINTOSH

Burt's views on education, like most of his views, remained remarkably consistent throughout his life. Well in advance of their time when he entered the educational world before the First World War, his views did not alter with developments in educational theory and practice, and by the end of his life they were out of tune with many so-called 'progressive' trends of the time. ( Hearnshaw 1979, p. 122)

HEARNSHAW'S JUDGEMENT is perceptive and fair. Burt was, for example, a firm believer in equality of educational opportunity, and consistently argued that the English educational system was unfairly biased in favour of children from middle-class backgrounds who gained access to grammar schools and universities far more readily than their innate abilities justified. As he frequently pointed out (e.g. Burt 1939, 1943, 1969a), the average IQ of middle-class children might be, indeed was, higher than that of working-class children, but the fact that there were so many more of the latter than of the former meant that there were actually more working-class than middle-class children with an IQ of, say, 115 or more. In spite of which, the vast majority of university students came from middle-class backgrounds.

If this might, even today, be regarded as a reasonably liberal point of view, some of Burt's other attitudes towards educational selection, undoubtedly progressive in the 1920s and 1930s, were widely denounced as reactionary in the 1950s and 1960s by progressive educational thinkers and politicians. Whatever Gould ( 1981) or Kamin ( 1981) may say, Burt was certainly not responsible for the institution of the 11 + exam in English schools after the 1944 Education Act, let alone for the practice of selection for 'free places' in secondary schools in the 1920s and 1930s. Selection was already built into the system: the only question at issue was the basis on which it was to occur ( Sutherland 1984). Educational psychologists, such as Godfrey Thomson and Burt, argued that IQ tests were likely to produce a fairer system of selection than parental interview, teachers' assessments, or even tests of written English-all of which favoured children from

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