In 1944 the tripartite system was introduced to the education system of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This put schools into three types: grammar, technical and secondary modern. Pupils were allocated to each type of school on the basis on their performance in the eleven plus exam that was held in the final year of each child’s primary school education.


Sir Cyril Burt, a psychologist, was very influential in the establishment of this system. Burt believed that educational ability was usually inherited by children and was that this ability could be proved exams. It was therefore decided to test all children in their final year of primary education to see if they had the academic ability to attend a grammar school or if they were better suited to other schools which had a smaller bias towards the classics such as Latin. The more able students would attend grammar schools as it was expected that these types of schools would provide a more formal traditional education compared to the other two types of schools, which would have varying degrees of vocational work associated with them.


The 11+ exam was seen as some as being divisive and too labelling at an early age. Its detractors believed that children who failed the 11+ would be saddled with a label of ‘failure’ and that they would react to this accordingly at school. Many saw secondary moderns as the schools where you either learned a vocational skill or you failed and became, for example, a labourer. The results of the 11+ were noted to have a strong correlation between success or failure and social class. In the years that the 11+ covered all of England and Wales, many in the upper class sent their children to private schools. Therefore, the class that was seen to succeed regarding the 11+ was the middle class. Grammar schools were never seen as a place where children from a working class background could thrive, even if they got a place. Currently Kent is the only county that uses the 11+ exam across the county. Since its introduction, the 11+ has also seen the introduction of the 13+ – to allow children who may have failed the 11+ to succeed at 13+ – and the 16+ that allows children access to a grammar school based on their GCSE results regardless of their background.


While Kent still places its trust in the grammar school system, with parental support, nearly all other English and Welsh counties have disbanded them and replaced them with comprehensive schools. By the early 1960’s, Burt’s research into educational achievement was discredited. Comprehensive schools were introduced by the Labour government under Harold Wilson and the modus operandi for them is that they serve a community (a catchment area) where all students attend regardless of ability. Wilson’s government believed that comprehensive schools would create a greater community esprit de corps as the schools would be very much a part of the community it served. Grammar schools selected their pupils from across a much larger area and Labour believed any sense of community spirit was impossible to achieve. That was the theory, at least, behind comprehensive schools. They also ensured that all pupils stayed on a level playing field with no one child being labelled a failure simply because they did not pass an exam at the end of their primary education.


How well have comprehensive schools lived up to the aspirations of Wilson’s government?


The evidence shows that working class students continue to score less than middle class students when it comes to GCSE and GCE exams. This may lead to the conclusion that children from the higher social classes will achieve the best in education. However Bowles and Gintis argue that simply because above average intelligence is associated with higher social classes, it does not mean that one causes the other. How is intelligence measured?


Arthur Jensen (1973) defines intelligence as “abstract reasoning abilities” and argues it is a “selection of just one portion of the total spectrum of human mental abilities”.


It’s the ability to discover patterns, logical principle, events and authority and the ability to address these problems.


Intelligence is measured on intelligence tests (IQ). They test knowledge and memory rather than the ability to reason. Despite the popularity of the IQ tests, they are not an accurate measurement of someone’s intelligence. Sociologists argue that an IQ test only really defines how middle class you are as they are written by people who are from the middle class. Therefore, some social classes subjected to this form of testing will fail. The best example of this is the testing of non-Western populations with western IQ tests. The test was done on Yakima Indian children living in Washington. They were asked to place wooden blocks into the shapes where they fitted. They did this with ease but failed to finish within the time limit so were failed. However unlike Western culture, the Yakima do not place a high priority on speed. This study would be relevant to Philip Vernon who said: “there is no such thing as a culture-fair test, and there never can be”.


There is a general agreement that intelligence is due to both genetic and environmental factors. It is believed that children inherit their parents’ intelligence. Scientists such as Jensen, Hernstein, Murray, and Eysenck ague that between 60% to 80% of intelligence is largely inherited. The environment they work live in will be the school they attend combined with the people they socialise with and the opportunities available to them.

Studies into twins are the strongest case for environmental factors affecting a child’s intelligence as twins are genetically identical. Therefore, they must be influenced by the environment in which they live in. This does not allow an accurate measurement of how much their IQ of each twin is due to environmental factors.


However Eysunck argues that intelligence is passed down from the parents and quotes “what children take out of school is proportional to what they bring into the school in terms of IQ”.


Hernstein and Murray (1994) are concerned with inequality in general and not just inequality of educational attainment. They see qualifications as a source of inequality. According to them, American society is increasingly meritocratic. The class position of people is increasingly determined by their intelligence. The education system is also seen as increasingly meritocratic.


Those who argue that differences in IQ between social groups are due largely to environmental factors make the following points. It is not possible to estimate the degree to which IQ is determined by genetic and environmental factors. Research has indicated that a wide range of environmental factors can affect performance in IQ tests.


It is now widely accepted that it is impossible to measure the proportion of intelligence that results from inheritance and upbringing. The only argument for environmental factors influencing children’s intelligence is the studies done on twins, where they both have the same genes and their intelligence is influenced by the environment they live in. However, the fact that some sociological theories have been discredited does not mean that they have lost influence. The argument for inherited intelligence is much stronger than the argument for the environment influencing the child.


The term intelligence has now been replaced by “ability” in schools and recent studies. Ability is constituted in ways that provide for the systematic disadvantage of particular socially defined groups such as working class students and Afro Caribbean students.


Teachers believe that ‘ability’ is much easier to measure than ‘intelligence’ as ability is a much more general term. The head teacher at Taylor Comprehensive has said: “You can’t measure ability can you? You can’t achieve more than you’re capable of, can you?”


Gillborn and Youdell found that both the schools they studied ‘certain peers were favoured over others’. Many students believed that middle class students were punished less when compared to Afro-Caribbean students even when they had committed similar offences. Also lesser quality work was expected of Afro-Caribbean students by the teachers. Gillborn and Youdell said “We observed many occasions where Afro Caribbean students seemed to be dealt with more harshly or to face lower expectations than the peers of other ethnic minorities.



Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex