A narrow gauge

July 14, 1995

Richard Pring disagrees with James Tooley's argument, set out in last week's THES, that school exams should be replaced by IQ tests

The most surprising aspect of James Tooley's column in last week's Perspective was that the "strength of the reaction (to his proposals for replacing school exams with IQ tests) surprised me". Of course, many in the educational community are "angry and hostile", given the immense damage that the threadbare espousal of IQ testing has done to countless individuals over the decades. This is not what he contemptuously refers to as a "knee-jerk reaction to any mention of IQ", but an intelligent (whether innate or acquired) assessment of the validity of the claims that Tooley is making together with an awareness of what people do if those claims go unchallenged.

There are three aspects to the doctrine which Tooley wishes to resurrect, as the new director of the Education and Training Unit of the Institute of Economic Affairs. First, intelligence is for the most part innate, what we are born with, not improvable through better teaching or harder study. Second, this innate capacity permeates all we do when we think or reflect or reason - it is the dominant cause of any sort of intelligent achievement. Third, it can be accurately measured at a relatively early age so that children's subsequent capacity for different forms of education, training or employment can be predicted. This is best captured in the words of Sir Cyril Burt, the educational psychologist whose advice to the Hadow committee had such an influence upon the postwar reorganisation of schools. "In an ideal community, our aim should be to discover what ratio of intelligence nature has given to each individual child at birth, then to provide him with an appropriate education, and finally to guide him into the career for which he seems to have been marked out."

Such was the strength of Burt's influence that the entire maintained educational system was shaped by the belief in the innate, measurable and unalterable intelligence of each child. The 11+ examination provided the information for dividing children into grammar (those who were good with abstract ideas), technical (those who were good at working intelligently with their hands and at making things) and secondary modern schools (those who were good at something else which was never quite clear).

However, the effects of this were immense, albeit unpredicted. In preparation for the 11+ examination, the vast majority of primary schools streamed children from the age of nine, some even from the age of seven. In effect, the potential of children in this "ideal community", preparing the next generation for further education and an appropriate career, was decided when Mandy had hardly begun to read. And of course teachers would teach, and children engage in their studies, according to the expectations which these psychologists legitimated. After all, if the "dull child" (an expression used by both Burt and the psychometrician Eysenck) was dull by nature, there was little sense in trying to make him bright. And lest the intelligent child might by accident fail these tests of his intelligence, then it was necessary to ditch much that would otherwise have enriched the curriculum so that he or she could concentrate upon the forthcoming tests. The miseries entailed by reclassification at 11+, and by subsequent relocation into an "appropriate school", were never compensated for by "parity of esteem" for the secondary modern, for there never was nor could there be parity of esteem or of funding between schools for the successful and schools for the failures.

In practice, the claims of IQ testing were not really believed in. Why else should so many of us have been forced to swot to prove that we had innate intelligence? Why else did primary schools stream their pupils so that some children, but not others, could be coached lest they lose the grammar school place reserved only for the innately intelligent? And was it the case that the 8 per cent of school places which were grammar in Gateshead and the 60 per cent in parts of Wales truly reflected the distribution of innate intelligence between the Principality and the north-east of England? And ought it not to be surprising that, when the 11-year-old age cohort dipped by one third in the early 1980s, the grammar school places did not so dip - as if the intelligence quotient had suddenly risen in a large proportion of the population? Furthermore, if the intelligence tests tested a fixed quotient of intelligence, how is it that so many of our vice chancellors failed? (Or maybe that is the weakest link in my case.) There are three fundamental weaknesses in Tooley's argument. First, as a philosopher, he might indeed be disdainful of the "multiple intelligence" of Howard Gardner, but he surely cannot hand over a complex concept such as that of "intelligence" to the psychometricians who, in a simple-minded way, believe only in that which can be easily measured. People engage intelligently in mathematics as well as in plastering; some bring up their children intelligently as well as their heavy suitcases from the ground floor; some can be politically intelligent in a practical way but fail to respond intelligently to questions in a politics examination. There are many different forms of intelligent thinking and behaviour. But there is nothing in the literature which shows a strong correlation between a single intelligence factor and the many different ways, theoretical and practical, personal and impersonal, in which we can be said to think and to behave intelligently and which are so important to be nurtured in school. It is essential, both in justice to each individual and in fairness to the community, to recognise the wide range of activities in which young people can be encouraged to show intelligence.

Second, it is not easy to see how intelligence, in its many different forms, cannot be improved through learning. To think intelligently one needs the relevant concepts, and those need to be learnt. To drive intelligently requires the relevant skills, and those are to be learnt. To relate intelligently to others requires insight and awareness, and these must be learnt. Sir Edward Boyle, when minister of education, was right therefore to say in his foreword to the Newsom report that "the essential point is that all children should have an equal opportunity of acquiring intelligence" - a final dismissal (we hope) of the dominance of the notion in our schools of innate, fixed and measurable intelligence which would determine thereafter the education and occupation of each child.

Third, the tests failed to detect any capacity that was unalterable as a result of further teaching. The work of Phillip Vernon in the 1950s demonstrated that the supposedly fixed IQ scores could be boosted by an average of 14 points by a limited amount of coaching - an amount which must have shifted the rank order, and thereby the grammar school allocation, by many thousands. The point is that the empirical work of Burt upon which so much of this enterprise was built, affecting thousands of lives, giving false expectations to some, denying those expectations to others, justifying a divided schooling and a divided curriculum, has subsequently been found wanting - accused even of fraudulence. Is this really what Tooley and his Institute of Economic Affairs wants to bring back?

The context of Tooley's argument is the proliferation of assessments which now cost so much time and money to so little purpose - what once was referred to as the diploma disease. I have some sympathy with this position. But a reform of assessment requires something more valid and fair than a return to the discredited intelligence tests.

Richard Pring is professor of educational studies at the University of Oxford.

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