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Burt, Sir Cyril

Category: Scientist

 

Sir Cyril Lodowic Burt (3 March 1883 – 10 October 1971) was an English educational psychologist who made major changes and contributions to the UK education system.  His proposals determined the future of a great many children in the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

Burt favoured the bright, which made him a friend of some and an enemy of others.  His innovations in education, most notably his involvement in the eleven plus exam, propelled  those who succeeded in the exam, boys and girls, onto career paths totally denied them or inaccessible to them before the War.  For the first time, education was free and almost equal to that provided in paid for ‘public’ schools.

He became a controversial figure and those who opposed him were not always people whose motives were helpful.  Burt is also known for his studies on the heritability of IQ, an area likely to cause even more controversy as it impinges on politics, sociology and religion.   

The observation we have for him, however, has nothing to do with his educational interests.  Over the course of his career, Burt published numerous articles and books on a host of topics ranging from psychometrics through to philosophy of science.  But one area of interest for us is his interest in Parapsychology.  Parapsychology is the investigation of telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation, apparitional experiences, and other phenomenon of the mind as a whole.

 

In amongst the long list of purely academic articles Burt wrote, - articles such as "Experimental Texts of General Intelligence"[The British Journal of Psychology 3: 94–177]; "Mental Tests" [Child Study 8: 8–13];  or "The Causal Factors of Juvenile Crime" [ British Journal of Medical Psychology 3: 1–33]; as well as  the important paper in 1959 called "The Examination at Eleven Plus" [ British Journal of Education Studies 7: 99–117];  - we have the very intriguing paper written in 1966  "Parapsychology and its Implications" [ International Journal of Neuropsychiatry 2: 363–377].

It is clear that Burt, in studying the mind, studied it as a whole.  He was as interested in the unusual aspects of mind as he was the more usual.  Thus in amongst the books he wrote – books such as Handbook of Tests for Use in Schools [1923 and 1948]; or The Gifted Child, we find the following:

  • The Study of the Mind [1930]
  • How the Mind Works [1934]
  • Psychology and Psychical Research: the Seventeenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture, The Society for Psychical Research [1968].
  • ESP and Psychology [1975]

And from this you can see he was a member of The Society for Psychical Research.

His career

 

Burt was born on 3 March 1883, the first child of Cyril Cecil Barrow Burt (b. 1857), a medical practitioner. 

Encyclopedia Britannica
Burt studied at the universities of Oxford and Würzburg before becoming in 1913 the first educational psychologist appointed by a governmental body in Britain, a position that led to the first child-guidance clinic in England. He joined the faculty of the University of London in 1924 and served as professor of psychology at University College in London from 1931 until his retirement in 1950.

 

Burt worked under Sir Charles Sherrington whilst undertaking his early research. His first research project was to define his life's work.

Encyclopedia Britannica

In 1909 Burt published his experimental tests on general intelligence, in which he used factor analysis to define the kinds of factors at play in psychological testing (factor analysis involves the extraction of small numbers of independent factors from a large group of inter-correlated measurements). His method of factor analysis was fully presented in The Factors of the Mind (1940). Burt’s studies convinced him that intelligence was primarily hereditary in origin, although social and environmental factors could play a secondary role in intellectual development. From the 1940s on, he published studies showing that levels of intelligence could be correlated with occupational levels among large groups of test subjects

 

 

The sentence we have italicised is key.  You can look at this two ways and later commentators have chosen to look at it in a negative way.  But in fact what Burt had found out was that your family’s circumstances can be a severe block to progress, even if you happened to be bright.  That ‘class’ structures and income were having a very negative effect on children who potentially could do far better, given the chance.

In 1913, Burt took the part-time position of a school psychologist for the London County Council (LCC).  There he notably established that girls were equal to boys in general intelligence.

In 1931, Burt resigned his position at the LCC and the LDTC after he was appointed Professor and Chair of Psychology at University College, London.  He then became an expert member of the committees that developed the Eleven plus examinations. Political debate raged and continues to rage about the eleven plus exam.  But very few who rage understand anything of the conditions around at the time it was introduced.

Its aim was to select bright kids, whatever their social status or the financial condition of their parents, irrespective of whether they were girls or boys, and give them an education at least close to that received by the privileged in public schools – the paid for schools Burt had analysed years ago.

Girls Grammar schools were created and boys Grammar schools, on the basis that girls separated from boys were less likely to be intimidated in those days of lack of emancipation or recognition.

women working for men for peanuts

Before the war and before the eleven plus, bright kids from poor backgrounds did not have this opportunity.  Bright or not they left school at 14 or 15 and took lowly poorly paid jobs – clerks and manual workers.

And girls had nothing.

About the only ambition allowed them was to marry someone who was well off.

The academically bright selected through the eleven plus exam were even taught the subjects taught in public [paid for] schools.  Latin, languages, classics, science, mathematics.  Even for girls.  It was actually revolutionary.

 

My father, who was denied an education despite being bright, jumped about in amazement and glee at what was being taught.  He couldn’t believe the subjects on offer.  We grew weary, my brother and I from his questions about what we had learnt that day.  He received his education through us.  He even read my text books in the evenings. ‘Don’t waste this’, he used to say ‘think of it as your passport to a better life’.  And indeed it was, for both of us.

For those who spread the myth that there was no interchange of pupils between Grammar schools and secondary schools, we can state categorically that it is a myth.    There was interchange.  But quite a few secondary school pupils offered the chance to transfer refused, simply because in their secondary school they were top of their year, and felt good about it, whereas if transferred they would be just one among 120 or so. [Four classes of 30 all streamed, A, B and two equal Cs].

There were  one or two pupils in the Grammar schools who asked to be transferred to secondary schools [which was denied them] simply because the entirely academic curriculum was too much for them.  Our school introduced one optional lesson of  'cooking' each week to give us a break.

Expectations were raised that these children were also entitled to go to university.  A full grant was often made available to the very bright, but poor, to enable them to go. 

 

But only a tiny minority was favoured by this system.  In the 50s and 60s less than 1% of children were considered bright enough to be accepted at university.  University classes in those days had under 30 pupils, there were few big lecture halls.

Furthermore, getting to university was no guarantee of staying at university.  The exams were extremely difficult and in some cases half those accepted in the first year never made it to the second year.  There were even those who failed in their second year, which seems particularly harsh, but on the other hand, standards were standards.  There were numerous classes in those days, in which, of a class of perhaps 20, only one was a girl, particularly in science and mathematics.

Despite this , the accusation of ‘privileged’ and ‘elitist’ was made against those who succeeded, forgetting that they may have been privileged in the sense of education like that being a privilege, but there was nothing elitist about them.  Most were bewildered by their good fortune and unbelievably grateful for the chance to go to university at all.

technical colleges taught craft skills as well as courses on book-keeping
for example, or basic accounting

The system disadvantaged the late developers, but those who did not pass the eleven plus received a practical as opposed to academic education leading to technical colleges, whose teachers were usually extremely good, drawn as they were from industry and working life.  Electricians taught electricians in those days.  As such there was no disadvantage in reality.  The objection revolved much around the apparent social stratification of the Grammar school versus secondary school children. Very often it was simply a question of ego, and not the ego of those who succeeded, but those who didn’t make it.

A 1950s student at Tresham Technical College

And now, in the UK, we have free education for those in schools, but those who go to ‘university’ have to pay.  Many who leave are saddled with a debt they have to pay off for years.  Perhaps worse, universities are dependent on fees to keep going with the huge number of staff and vast buildings they have now managed to acquire and it is not unknown for degrees to be awarded to children who simply have rich parents, in effect you can now buy a degree if you have enough money.  This must be the ultimate blow for children from poor or middle class backgrounds who have actually worked hard and done well on their merits. 

In 1942, Burt was elected President of the British Psychological Society. In 1946, he became the first British psychologist to be knighted for his contributions to psychological testing and for making educational opportunities more widely available.

At age 68, Burt retired but continued writing articles and books. He died of cancer at age 88 in London on 10 October 1971.

References

Valentine, Charles (1965). "Cyril Burt: A Biographical Sketch and Appreciation." In C. Banks, & P.L. Broadhurst, (Eds.)

Observations

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