Friday, 9 September 2016

The intelligence factory


Pupils in a classroom


For reasons of neighbourhood activism, I get lots of mail from nightclubs. They affect a keen interest in my well-being, and assure me that they are respectable operations, not the sorts of rowdy places from which drunkards disgorge in the small hours of the morning, vomiting, slamming car doors and occasionally knifing similarly inebriated revellers. No, they assure me, such things will never happen at their establishment, but just in case of any problems they have provided a telephone number for residents, which they ask me to circulate, where complaints will be carefully taken down, logged, recorded, considered and ignored.

So, it was with some excitement that I received what appeared to be a golden key to the VIP section of a nightclub, Room 70. In addition to the key there was a good quality brass lapel badge.  I was prepared to be suborned by these gifts, but it turned out to be the entrance to an even more entertaining locale: a Scottish intelligence factory.

The golden key was a USB with some good moody soundtracks and a 1950s lecture by Godfrey Thomson on the art of lecturing. Billed as “The man who tested Scotland’s IQ” the exhibition on Thomson is a look at the mind and the techniques of a very talented man, driven by a moral impulse: to do everything possible to improve methods of discovering intelligent children who might be overlooked, and guiding them into forms of higher education likely to both make them happier in their lot, and useful to a society and civilisation which needs them.

I write this today, Friday 9 September 2016 as Prime Minister Theresa May presents a policy of increasing the number of Grammar Schools, which in the English context are selective schools for brighter pupils. This policy is, as far as I can make out from this morning’s interview with Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education, being proposed on the basis of increasing parental and pupil choice, but is being criticised and judged on its capacity to create social mobility, and mitigated, if that is the right word, by a requirement to take on a proportion of pupils who are poor. In sum, the policy does not propose selecting pupils solely by merit, but also by poverty, and the moral principles espoused by Thomson might cause some embarrassment in contemporary circles. The weight of informed educational opinion is that selective Grammar Schools are a bad thing. The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw has said: My fear is by moving to a grammar and secondary modern system - because, let's face it, that's what well have if you divide at 11 - we will put the clock back, and the progress we have made over the past 10 to 15 years will slow."

So, we are looking back at ancient educational history, because Sir Godfrey Thomson was intent upon discovering children who might be overlooked by the technique of testing their minds, not their parent’s wallets.

In the 1940s an 1950s Thomson was the largest-scale producer of IQ tests in Europe, distributed in their millions. A modest man, he did not seek personal acclaim, did not keep the money his tests raised but placed it in an educational trust, and did not call his tests after himself but after his place of employment, Moray House. A maths and physics graduate, and later pupil of C.S. Myers, he dominated his field, and was feted by E.L.Thorndike, Karl Pearson, and R.A.Fisher. He became famous and then faded. In a twist of fate, he was an early advocate of comprehensive (non-selective) education which, as it became the accepted wisdom, rendered his massive intelligence testing operation redundant, in social and political terms, if not in reality. He wanted equal amounts spent on each pupil, disregarding his needs and abilities.

Essentially a hard scientist, Thomson tackled intelligence testing from first principles, mostly drawn from maths. He was a statistical pioneer, leading to what is now called item response analysis, the detailed response characteristics drawn out by each individual test item. The centre of the operation was Room 70, crammed with psychologists and statisticians (using Facit calculators, of the sort I was still trained on in 1965) , in which tests were devised and then distributed. In 1949 alone that came to over one million tests. At around that time two in every three children in England sat a Moray House test.

Here is the justification for intelligence testing in one single sentence Thomson wrote in 1952: intelligence tests if properly constructed are less dependent upon educational opportunity and measure, to a larger extent than ordinary examination, the innate potential intelligence.

Thomson also knew that testing could not be reliable enough on a single occasion to come to a final judgement, and favoured repeated testing. Testing was fair because it could reveal the true potential of each child, and could be liberating, as it was for him.

Now we come to Thomson’s greatest legacy. On 1 June 1932 every child born in Scotland 1921 (87,498 in all) sat Thomson’s Moray House Test No. 12 of general intelligence.  On 1 June 1947 every child born in Scotland in 1936 (70,805 in all) sat the same test.

Within a short period Thomson could report that Scottish intelligence, far from falling because of lower class fecundity, had in fact risen somewhat. Having thus led the world in population intelligence testing, Scotland then put the results in a cellar, and forgot about them. Those who bothered to find them in 1997 turned copperplate records into research gold.

They launched the new field of cognitive epidemiology, showing that brighter children live longer, and not just because they make better choices in life. The 11+ results have provided a corrective to many fanciful cross-sectional health studies. You know the sort: too much/not enough sleep/sausages/bacon/vegetables/coffee/sugar/dental flossing/exercise/sitting at a desk/ is associated with: obesity/premature death/premature baldness/premature ejaculation. However, when you factor in intelligence at age 11 most of those disappear as causes of longevity, except for smoking. Don’t smoke, and don’t read too many health warnings, is my advice. Just hope you have been born with system integrity.

As to Grammar Schools, Faith Schools, Academy Schools, Comprehensive Schools, and good, bog-standard and bad schools, they account for 10% of the variance at the most. 90% is down to the student, at least in reasonably organized countries that can run reasonable quality subsidized schooling. My own view is that most head teachers know that, though most feel they cannot admit it in public, so they battle furiously to get the brightest students, which will make them look good. The angry debate is mostly about who gets first choice of the brightest.

Lest silence be taken to imply that Thomson was hell to work with, there are countless witnesses to his helpfulness to staff and students, his love of his family and of music and theatre. About leisure he said: with mastery, won in most cases before thirty, comes leisure which can be truly enjoyed, not leisure stolen from duty.

He had a formidable mind, but was gentle with it, he was world-renowned but maintained his humility, he turned down considerable personal wealth because he wanted above all to give every child the opportunity he got when he won a scholarship to a school, aged 13.

The exhibition in Edinburgh closes on 29 October, but the debate about the selection of students, and the best way to educate them, seems likely to last for ever.



  1. Too good to resist, a quotation from a history of mid-Victorian times that I've been reading. The Taunton Commission reported in 1867: "English parents have lost confidence in grammar schools and have not got the Scotch educational tradition to guide them."

    "using Facit calculators": we did too, but didn't always pronounce the word as Facit; the Brunsviga machines we occasionally used were better. (I have a anecdote about how the University of Edinburgh came by its Brunsviga calculators: I may bore you with it, someday, when a suitable excuse arises.)
    And then happily we were taught to program (not in Fortran, thank God).

    Now, GT. As you know, academics don't always heap praise on former colleagues, but I can vouch that in Edinburgh in the early 70s he was remembered as having been a thoroughly Good Thing (GT was a GT, eh?), as a very capable man, and as a remarkably hard-working and successful administrator. It had proved impossible to replace him with any one individual who could undertake all his duties.

    PS1: "we will put the clock back" is usually a pompous way of saying "we refuse to learn from our mistakes".

    PS2: "when you factor in intelligence at age 11"; or more likely factor it out?

  2. Good to be able to rely on you! Our Facit calculators came from Italy, I think. A pleasing shade of 50s metallic blue. Factor in intelligence in order to covary it out..... OK, point taken.

  3. I sometimes wonder whether the science involved in all this stuff would be more palatable to more people, if those blessed with good brains didn't (some of them) try to claim some moral merit in their good fortune.

    "I happened to win the genetic lottery" would be an accurate statement, I'd think. Would it be more palatable?

    Careful choice of parents alters the odds but it doesn't change the fact that it's a lottery.

    1. I am no drive to deny the vastity of IQ repercussions on the life of individuals, countries and entire civilizations, and would find it easy to subscribe to life being an IQ test.

      This said, identifying being more intelligent with living a better life and good luck is objectionable on many a level.

      I have known all manner of people, and my observations would tell me that they are as "happier" as less intelligent and less technogically developed (again, intelligent) their environment.

      They live 10 or 15 years less on average?
      This isn't conclusive per se.
      If many thousand hours are spent at a law firm's office in Manhattan, or in the open in the countryside, that may be a better measurement than a chronometre's.

      At any rate, no differences in intelligence (and their meaning) will be accepted by the masses, and admitted by the communicators who handle the masses for their own benefit, no matter how they could be expressed.

    2. Your last para: I fear you may be right, but I'm not certain you are. I wonder if such differences might have been more palatable in a religious age: "God willed it" and all that.

  4. Where did Fisher et al. praise Thomson's work?
    Also, I vaguely recall that Thomson advocated for an IQ-based meritocracy in part because he himself grew up as a talented working class lad. Do you have any info on that?

  5. Karl Pearson offered him a job twice, but Thomson refused.Fisher nominated him for membership of the International Statistics Institute.

  6. JT, are you suggesting above that whatever educational institute a child goes into, their intelligence is largely all that matters with regards to results?

    I suppose 10% (for instance) in exam results and so forth is not nothing. Having some recent experience with schools, both with my own children (state>private - gifted and talented, left somewhat in the doldrums) and with the short teaching career of the missus (which included a school recently in the press over uniform infractions and some others like it)I would expect a bad educational institution to be key impediment to social mobility. For instance, the genetic 'lottery' of having a very bright child from a dysfunctional household in a sink school is something anecdotally I heard a lot about from her experiences.

  7. I was quoting Doug Detterman's review of evidence. The 10% is true of reasonably well-organized countries.