O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! Ophelia, Hamlet.

It should not be surprising that a recent report by the Social Mobility Commission found that educational inequality is increasing. Schools tend to reflect, rather than direct, their communities, so in a society of increasing inequality, it should come as no surprise that that inequality is replicated in its schools.

This replication is not, however, a foregone conclusion. The mechanism by which inequality is reproduced is well embedded in the system, but there is also evidence to show that it can be changed, and that when this happens there are remarkable results for the children concerned. The mechanism in question is not funding, governance, leadership structures or even curriculum. It is not even the class system itself. Rather, it is the beliefs that educators, parents and policy-makers hold about intelligence – beliefs which are barely recognised, let alone discussed or questioned, but which pervade our actions every day.

It was Alfred Binet who first developed a test of intelligence. Working amongst the poor and deprived in Paris, he was commissioned by the government to find a way to classify students so that they could be given extra help according to their level of ability. His early tests were designed to identify three categories: idiocé, imbecilité, and moronité. While Binet’s motives were charitable, the sorting power of IQ tests was soon harnessed by eugenicists such as the Stanford professor Lewis Terman, who devised tests to ‘prove’ that immigrants from certain countries had sub-normal intelligence. Scandinavians scored the highest on his tests, he told an American Senate Committee, while the Irish and Mexicans scored at levels “dangerously close to those of negroes”. Later in the twentieth century, the British tripartite model of education (grammar, secondary technical and secondary modern), was heavily influenced by the work of Sir Cyril Burt – based on ‘twin’ studies purporting to show intelligence as hereditary and fixed, which were later discredited because Burt had falsified data.

The legacy of this approach to intelligence is that we have an education system inherently focused on sorting children according to their perceived intelligence. Underlying this pre-occupation is an attitude, often unspoken but nevertheless widespread: more intelligent children are more deserving of a quality education, whereas this would be wasted on those ‘less able’. The most recent policy built on this belief is the government’s determination to increase the number of grammar schools, i.e. state-funded, selective schools. The justification is that this will ensure ‘the brightest’ students receive ‘good school places’. In schools, the manifestation is more subtle. Almost universally, we infer intelligence from attainment – a proxy that is fraught with problems. The most important of these is that we can easily make our students bear the consequences of our failures.

In other words, is it possible that our students’ low attainment may be a consequence of our teaching, not an independent entity – one which excuses us from expectations of progress? We do know that the labels we apply to students are readily internalised, and can affect not only their expectations of academic progress but even their sense of identity and their role in society (Osterholm, Nash, and Kritsonis, 2007). It is entirely possible for the system to create an achievement underclass – an underclass overwhelmingly comprised of children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, as the Social Mobility Commission noted.

Take, for example, the case of a student in Year 10, having arrived at secondary school with all his Key Stage 2 scores several years below expected progress. His mean CATs were just above 70, indicating that he was at the bottom of the below average band – nearly two standard deviations below the norm, a long way behind his peers. The intelligence test results seemed confirmed by his reading age – he was reading at a six-year level. Well into his GCSEs, he was unlikely to finish school with anything other than a handful of poor grades. Such a student, you might think, is the perfect example of why we use setting – his particular needs could be accommodated within a small, nurturing environment.

Except that it was the other way around. It was precisely because he was treated as if he had a disability, as if there was something wrong with him, that he had underachieved. His low scores on the intelligence test were in fact because he lacked the tool skills – primarily reading – to be able to answer the questions. His poor academic performance was rooted in the same problem. How do I know? Because, when he was placed in a programme which ensured that he caught up in his reading, his scores across the board increased to the point where he gained five good passes (A* – C) including English and maths. He went on to sixth form and then university. The system had, for ten years, treated his low attainment as a proxy for low intelligence. No one expected very much from him – in fact, he was not expected to last at school until the end of Year 11 because his behaviour was so poor.

I am not offering this anecdote as evidence, but as illustration. For evidence, you can see other examples of students who acquired reading skills very rapidly on the Thinking Reading website. A few minute’s searching on Twitter and blogs will show you examples of remarkably high attainment by non-privileged students at Michaela School in Brent, London. A well-documented example is the Berieter –Engelmann Direct Instruction pre-school in Alabama in the 1960s:

“Confounding the belief that intelligence was hereditary, Engelmann found (and others later confirmed) that the mean IQ for the group jumped from 96 to 121 in one year. . . .” (Barbash, 2012).

Their IQ scores moved when they were taught differently. You can also see the other side of the issue in the telling study by Galen Alessi, reviewing the cases of 5,000 American students who had been evaluated by educational psychologists:

“All 5,000 evaluations attributed the student’s problems to deficiencies in the child and the child’s family. Not one linked the student’s problems to faulty curricula, poor teaching practices or bad management.” (ibid).

 My observation is that within the teaching profession, we hold deeply-rooted beliefs about intelligence and how we can infer it from students’ language, behaviour and performance. However, such low performances are actually likely to be the product of ineffective teaching in the past. I don’t say this to cast blame, but to suggest that we need to examine how we respond to low attainment.

We have only to look at the PISA results from 2012, cited by none other than the DfE, to see that 17% of UK school leavers were below the minimum level for literacy. They were the products of a system that assumed the problem was in the child, not the teaching. The evidence, however, shows this does not have to be the outcome.

We cannot neglect those at the lower performing end of the scale: they too have the right to the dignity and the power of a good education. It is only when we accept our responsibility to change the way we teach these students that the inequality we all decry will be addressed. If we do not, another kind of change will come, one that I fear will be a harvest of resentment, ignorance and hatred.

Perhaps the last word is best left to the founder of intelligence testing, Alfred Binet:

“Some recent thinkers…[have affirmed] that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we must try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing.”

I can think of no better way to describe a system driven by assumptions about student inability than ‘brutal pessimism’.


Barbash, S. (2012) Clear Teaching. Education Consumers Foundation.

Osterholm, K., Nash, W. R., and Kritsonis, W. A. (2007) Effects of Labeling Students “Learning Disabled”: Emergent Themes in the Research Literature 1970 Through 2000. Focus on Colleges, Universities and Schools 1 (1).

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4 Responses to Intelligence-ism

  1. Pingback: Assessment in education: 15+ myths | Educational test item design

  2. teachwell says:

    The labelling of children as SEN in primary is something that I have considered problematic for a long time, especially in a context where constructivist methods are treated like they are written on tablets of stone so “of course” the problem is that the child has something wrong with them.

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