The British Broadcasting Corporation is one of the world’s largest (35,000 employees including part-timers) and best funded news organisations, against which few can compete. Not only does it have a budget which in 2018-19 amounted to £4.0 billion ($5.6 billion), but it is virtually guaranteed the continuation of that level of income by a government levy, the Licence Fee, so it can plan well into its well-funded future. Many other UK organisations have folded up their own news gathering teams, and use the BBC feed as the starting point for their commentary and reporting, trying to give their own slant to an agenda set by their bigger and better-funded rival. Even in an age when there are other providers of news, this colossus can set the tone and the boundaries of political and cultural life.
Here is a headline which caught my eye: Subnormal: The scandal of black children sent to ‘special’ schools
This was broadcast on 20 May on BBC1, the main national broadcast channel.
The opening paragraph of the article asserts:
In 1960s and 70s Britain, hundreds of black children were labelled as “educationally subnormal”, and wrongly sent to schools for pupils who were deemed to have low intelligence. For the first time, some former pupils have spoken about their experiences for a new BBC documentary.
It would be truer to say “In 1960s and 70s Britain, hundreds of children were classified as educationally subnormal because of low intelligence and failure to learn at school, and sent to special schools. Proportionately more black children than white children were sent to those schools”. If the intelligence and behavioural assessments were right, then it was not the wrong policy at all.
As is usual in TV documentaries, proofs will be given in the form of personal testimonies, with some general background remarks. Example:
Black students were sent to these schools in significantly higher proportions. The documentary makers have seen a 1967 report from the now-defunct Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), which showed that the proportion of black immigrant children in ESN schools (28%) was double that of those in mainstream schools (15%).
Should there have been double the number of black immigrant children in schools for the educationally sub-normal? Well, if the cut-off point was being below IQ 70, then there should have been 7 times as many black children as white children (15.9% vs 2.28%), so if there is a scandal, it is that many black children did not get special schooling. However, special schooling was often given to children who were disruptive. Schools can cope with slow learners, but not with very actively uncooperative non-learners who make learning impossible for other children.
So, what can we find in the educational sphere in which the black rate is double the white rate? How about school exclusions. Here are the 2017 figures:
The Caribbean rate is 9.69%. almost double the White British rate of 5.23%.
Many wrongly equated race with intellectual ability. But as the late educational psychologist Mollie Hunte argued, the generally poor attainment of black students wasn’t because of their intellectual ability. Instead, the tests used to assess pupils at the time were culturally biased.
Although cultural bias in tests was asserted by critics in Britain and in the US, it turned out that intelligence tests were good predictors of scholastic attainment.
A government enquiry into the education of children from ethnic minority groups published in 1985 found that the low average IQ scores of West Indian children were not a significant factor in their low academic performance. Instead, racial prejudice in society at large was found to play a crucial role in their academic underachievement.
This was the 1985 Swan Report, which makes very interesting historical reading.
The report itself concludes that racism is a big cause of black under-performance, and that black IQ is not a significant factor.
2.2 Low average IQ has often been suggested as a cause of underachievement, particularly in the case of West Indians. This has long been disputed, and our own investigations leave us in no doubt that IQ is not a significant factor in underachievement (Paragraphs 4.10-4.14 and Annex D).
The technical reports written by psychologists are different. They don’t actually say that IQ scores are not a significant factor. The late Prof Nick Mackintosh and Dr CGN Mascie-Taylor did a review of the literature, and although Mackintosh was very sympathetic to environmental explanations of racial differences, and against genetic interpretations, he went through the literature carefully enough, showing some of the problems in coming to a strong conclusion at the time. He was circumspect in his judgments, though against the genetic hypothesis. Here is what he said:
These findings tend to argue against those who would seek to provide a predominantly genetic explanation of ethnic differences in IQ, but they equally imply that such differences are not due to a special set of factors unique to the West Indian experience. Although discrimination against West Indian families in this country may have an important indirect effect on their children’s IQ scores by ensuring that they live in impoverished circumstances, there is less reason to believe that such discrimination, whether by society as a whole or by teachers and IQ testers in particular, has any direct effect on the West Indian child’s performance. There is, moreover, relatively little evidence that specifically supports either this or the genetic position. Such imperfect attempts as have been made to study the intellectual development of black and white children brought up in comparable surroundings have found few if any differences in their IQ scores. Conversely, there is not much reason to believe that teachers’ expectations have any large effects on their pupils’ IQ scores (although they may affect other aspects of their performance at school), and although motivational and attitudinal factors have sometimes been found to have significant effects on IQ scores, the effects are neither consistent nor large. At best such factors may make a modest contribution to observed ethnic differences in IQ scores; they are unlikely to be the most important cause.
6. The evidence is not compelling, then, but on balance it does seem to point one way rather than others: ethnic differences in IQ scores are probably largely caused by the same factors as are responsible for differences in IQ within the white population as a whole. And much the same conclusion probably applies to ethnic differences in more specific measures of school performance such as tests of reading or mathematics or public examinations. Here too, such differences as there are between different ethnic groups seem to be largely related to the same social factors that are related to differences within the indigenous populations. If, therefore, we wish to affect the IQ scores of children from ethnic minorities in our society, or indeed their school performance, we might make a start by improving the social and economic circumstances of their families.
Just to make things clear: I don’t agree with all of these points, and on some matters such as the predominance of the environment, I think they are plain wrong, and were wrong in 1985 when it was clear that some genetic groups with poor environments did very well, but those in a position to know about the subject have not ruled out the effects of intelligence on scholastic attainment.
The over-representation of black children in special education is described in this article as “one of the biggest scandals in British education”. In fact, it was always evident that intelligence mattered in education, even if some people felt this could not be said in public. Despite that, intelligence testing was only one part of the assessment for special education: classroom observation, teacher reports and home visits were also part of the picture.
By way of general background, I knew educational psychologists working in London at that time. They told me that on their regular school visits Head teachers always wanted a few children assessed in the hope that they might be sent off to a special school. When observed in class the reasons were generally obvious. The child, usually a boy, was highly disruptive, interrupting the teacher, turning on other children, sometimes tearing up their work and making things impossible for the class. Almost universally, it would turn out that there was no father at home, and the boys were black. Mothers were often enthusiastic about them being sent to boarding schools.
Special schools were expensive, because they required a higher teacher/pupil ratio, so places could not be simply handed out on request. Head teachers often wanted disruptive pupils out of their schools, and places were not always available. Boarding school type special schools were particularly expensive. They were often in stately homes in the Home Counties, which if run privately would have commanded very high fees.
By the way, it was reported to me that there was a particular Latin American immigrant group, often without fathers because the fathers were political prisoners, unable to speak English, and subject to all the environmental and cultural disadvantages of immigrant children, including low income, lack of any social connections, and a justified worry about whether they would see their fathers again, and ever be able to return home. They caused absolutely no problems at school, despite being from Uruguay.
The narrative of this BBC program is that black children were unfairly placed in special schools, but even this account accepts that the children were able eventually able to attend normal schools, (where the facilities and staff numbers were probably poorer). Interestingly, the best way of proving that a child had been placed in a special school incorrectly, and should not have been there, would be to show that in real life they had achieved much greater things than would have been expected of them an incorrectly-labelled slow learner. However, the personal examples given here are of continued under-performance, which makes one feel the original assessments may have been correct. On the contrary, this narrative asserts that it was the incorrect and unnecessary administration of special measures to these school children which caused their continuing real-life failures in adulthood.
Of course, the whole presentation is based on a purely journalistic approach. If you want to book the author of the article, he can be contacted below:
Personal stories are no way of evaluating the outcomes of special education. We would need a better sample of cases before coming to any conclusion. There would have to be a comparison of those who were difficult to teach and did, or did not, get offered special education. Currently children with learning difficulties are given special attention at normal schools. This makes their special needs less evident, but the procedure is highly costly in terms of teacher time.
The flavour of this article is to cast the education service in a very bad light, to accuse teachers of racism, and to say that people’s lives have been ruined. Apart from a perfunctory concession that the provision of special schools may have done some people some good, all the crucial personal histories are accusations to the contrary. Not a dissenting voice can be heard saying that in every school system there are some children who lack the capacity or the inclination to learn in standard classrooms, and that in every society there are big differences in ability.
In a paradox which appears to have been lost on the makers of this program, altruistic societies often spend more money on those who cannot easily learn than those who want to learn as much as possible.