Blame the genes of the poor, and pull up the middle-class drawbridge

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The Independent Online
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 up in manual jobs than working-class children. Three-quarters of private- school children enter the salariat, compared with only 42 per cent of those in state schools. But, he says, once you correct for intelligence and ability at age 11, then bright working-class children have almost as good a chance. He claims that if you test their ability and their level of commitment to school at 11, these variables eclipse differences in their parents' social class.

His dense research is full of statistical data, packed with standard deviations and the like. But for all this flam, it is bizarrely nonsensical. There is no terra firma in any of it. What does intelligence consist of in the first place? We have no way to test the innate IQ of a newborn child. Any pushy parent will know that if you take an IQ or verbal reasoning book of tests, your child's IQ will apparently soar by the time they get to the end of the book as they learn how to do them. If measured IQ can change so drastically with coaching, what is it measuring? Why have the average intelligence test scores of Japanese children increased by 10 points in the past 20 years?

Even if it were a good measure, how does it get into the child in the first place, by inheritance or teaching? A child can be permanently intellectually stunted by lack of stimulation in its first years. Other children who have been jam-packed with language, puzzles and games will naturally do better. Professor Saunders gives strong weight to children's attitude towards school at 11, as if that were not itself a class-determined measure: the educated will probably succeed better in instilling a sense of the value of education.

Some might think it does not much matter whether it is a physically inherited gene or an early intellectual upbringing that gains a child access to the decision-making classes. Society's only interest is to see the best talent win out.

And yet it does matter, a great deal. Professor Saunders's work represents the ultimate liberal nightmare, a universe where inequality is pre-ordained and irredeemable. Forget equality of opportunity for all children; simply pick out the cream at 11. If that means a preponderance of middle-class children in selective schools, blame it on the gene pool. The right has always accused liberals of refusing to take a hard-headed look at genetic intelligence, as with the outcry against Charles Murray's racial theories. Before him, IQ inventor Hans Eysenck was often mobbed by protesters when he went to speak at universities on these issues.

But since there is such powerful evidence that intelligence can be learnt, why should we abandon hope? Lyndon Johnson's great bequest to liberalism is the best beacon we have - his Head Start programme. Four-year-olds from the lowest-achieving backgrounds with highest crime potential were taken into an intensive learning programme for two years. Monitored over the past 30 years the results are startlingly good: compared with similar children not on the programme, Head Start children were nearly half as likely to drop out of school, half as likely ever to go on welfare, 20 per cent less likely to gain a criminal conviction, much more likely to own their own homes. Every dollar spent on the scheme saves the state another seven dollars in reduced crime and welfare later. (The Home Office is currently funding similar small trial schemes in Britain - but insanely, that funding will soon come to an end.)

So in the face of that evidence, what is the value of Professor Saunders's research? To follow its dreadful logic, we would simply abandon the poor to their "genetic" fate - and then what? We would retreat further into our middle-class, high-security castles, brazenly confident that our genetic superiority justifies all.

Neal Ascherson is ill.