Eugenics and Education

The Eugenics Movement affected the education system in Britain, and to some extent we can see patterns of it in policy even today.

Francis Galton believed that there was a hierarchy of society, and where you were reflected your intelligence. Those in the upper echelons of society were intelligent and had great worth to society. On the other hand, the lower classes were lacking in intelligence and of little use to society. He gathered statistics on memory, perception, and imagination, using them to define what ‘normal’ was. He was then able to determine how many people should be at each level of ‘mental ability’. These were then placed into various Education Acts throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The 1851 census gathered data on those who were deaf, dumb, and blind, but by 1871 this also included those who were classed as imbeciles and idiots. These changes were reflective of all aspects of society.

With the introduction of the 1870 Forster Education Act and the Education (Scotland) Act 1872, a link was created between teachers’ salaries and pupil results. Along with this, it also gave schools the ability to determine whether children were ‘ineducable’ and therefore could be excluded from education. This supported teachers who struggled to teach certain children, keeping their salaries low, but also meant that those excluded would have no education at all.

In 1886, The Idiots Act, created a definition between idiots and imbeciles. This led to the Departmental Committee on Defective and Epileptic Children. The Committee claimed that imbeciles would need placing in an asylum, and those who were feeble-minded could attend special schools. Those defined as idiots remained outside of education. Schools employed Medical Officers to determine what diagnosis a child should have and therefore whether they should be educated in schools or not.

The Egerton Report on the Royal Commission on the Blind, the Deaf and the Dumb of the United Kingdom, 1889, suggested a system whereby children who were blind and deaf, in any capacity, would have to have separate classes. In Central Scotland, these children were still educated in mainstream classes.

1893 Elementary Education (Deaf and Blind) Children Act implemented the Egerton Report suggestion of teaching children with disabilities in different classes. This was followed up by the Defective and Epileptic Children Act of 1899 which implemented special schools and classes for defective children, up to the age of 16. The idea being they would produce unskilled male labour and domestic workers, so they need not have any formal education.

By 1904, it became clear to certain people that there needed to be a formal test to determine mental capacity, rather than a doctor’s diagnosis. Alfred Binet came up with the Binet-Simon test, were they determined what score ‘normal’ children would have and then create a mental age.

This was expanded in 1910, by Stanford University’s Louis Terman. The Stanford-Binet test created the idea that by taking the mental age and dividing it by the child’s chronological age, which was then multiplied by 100, the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of a child could be calculated.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the 1902 Balfour Education Act created Local education Authorities, responsible for the schools, as well as specialist schools. The 1908 Royal Commission on the Feeble-minded, took their cue from the eugenicists, claiming that these children had inherited their feeble-mindedness. Those responsible for these children led lives of criminality, promiscuity and were degenerates. Sir James Crichton-Browne claimed that they were ‘our social rubbish [who] should be swept up and garnered and utilised as far as possible.’ The difficulty was, for those who wished to do this, that they apparently masqueraded as normal people and could not be picked out by sight. The Commission stated that these children were unfit for life, and therefore be placed into institutions. This also suited the idea that the family had created the problem, withdrawing them from it would be best policy. They also were not fit to have an education so should be excluded from it.

This was formalised in the 1913 Moral Deficiency Act, which allowed the LEA to determine who were the ‘moral defectives’, those that were idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded and create special schools for them, one was called the Colony for Mental Defectives. Eugenicists wanted the Act to go further and prohibit marriage between defectives. However, this was not included, though anyone who was caught having sex outside marriage was classed as mentally defective, then sent to a residential home.

The first child psychologist in the UK, Cyril Burt, collected data on twins and by using IQ tests confirmed that intelligence was inherited. He created a test that could determine whether a borderline child was deficient or not. The test took just six minutes, and it was later discovered the data he collected was fraudulent, created to fit in with his personal views.

The 1914 Act was never implemented due to the war, but it would have allowed LEAs to send any physically disabled child to the same place as those who were considered mentally defective. The 1918 Education Act made the education of ‘physically defective’ children compulsory, so they could no longer be out of the system.

Recording of the feeble-minded, defective, and backward, as well as those who were blind, deaf, mentally epileptic, and mentally defective, was made compulsory by the 1921 Education Act. By the 1927 Mental Deficiency Act, most of these children were placed into institutions.

Though the Eugenics movement did not have as much support as in other countries, such as Nazi Germany, during the 1920s and 1930s they did have a following. Ernest William McBride, of the Eugenics Education Society, was also Professor of Zoology at Imperial College, London, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1929, he wrote in the Eugenics Review:

‘The slums of Liverpool and Glasgow are being filled with a stunted population of so-called Celts from Wales and Ireland, really belonging to the Mediterranean race. They have a low standard of life and breed like rabbits, and under sentimental notions now in fashion the Nordic element [English and Scots] is called on to support them and thus indirectly contribute to its own undoing. The great problem of eugenics, in my view, is fundamentally racial: the breeding of mental defectives, deaf mutes, etc., is bad; but such mutations at worst from a small proportion of the population – and tend in the long run to die out. The real problem is to seek means to prevent the higher racial elements from being swamped by the lower.’

The Wood Committee Report, of 1929, defined the boundaries of IQ test results. Those scoring under 20 were classed as Idiots, Imbeciles had an IQ of between 20-50, with the Feeble-minded with an IQ of 60 or more. This last one was re-categorised as including the dull and backward and increased to an IQ of 70 or more.

During the years of the Depression, the most important category was that of being ‘fully human’, as they would be the ones who could be useful to society. Special schools were under utilised as people did not like the stigma attached to them.

During the war it was determined as necessary to create a three-tier system of grammar schools, secondary modern and technical colleges. The Butler Act of 1944 used IQ tests, in the form of the 11+, to determine which school children should be sent to, based on the tests designed in 1910. This was a way of keeping as many children as possible in the mainstream education system. What it created was a system were those who had most value to society where placed into grammar schools, the rest distributed between the secondary modern, and what technical colleges existed. The curriculum for them were completely different and girls were disadvantaged by quotas, at grammar schools, to ensure they did not outnumber the boys. This continued in some areas until the 1980s. The Act also defined 11 categories of deficiencies. These were the blind; diabetic; partially sighted; educationally subnormal; deaf; epileptic; partially hearing; maladjusted; delicate; physically handicapped; and speech defective. These categories would then determine how the children would be treated for educational purposes. Most ended up in segregated schools which were not allowed to take the 11+ and had a record of poor education. There was no opportunity for them to develop.

In 1947 there were 12,060 children in subnormal schools, by 1955 this shot up to 22,639, with 12,000 on the waiting lists and another 27,000 waiting a final diagnosis. This equated to 10% of the school population.

The Crowther Report on the Central Advisory Council for Education in 1959, believed that girls were genetically built for marriage and homemaking. This led to schools creating a special curriculum based on domestic science and childcare, with boys having more technical subjects such as woodwork. This continued right through until the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988. Poor children were genetically unable to cope with academic subjects, so those of the secondary modern and technical colleges tended to be more practical subjects. University for these children was not even considered a possibility. This tied in with the 1963 Newton Report which said that education needed to be more relevant to the requirements of the children.

The 1970 Education (Handicapped Children Act) and the 1974 Education (Mentally Handicapped Children) (Scotland), stated that all children should receive an education. The Local Education Authorities were responsible in providing a comprehensive system to be able to do this. The three-tier system of lower, middle, and upper schools was the response, with grammar schools falling out of favour for being elitist, and not benefitting all children. This was under the Labour government, which led to a campaign by Conservatives believing that the poor of the working class (Labour voters’ children) would hold back and diminish the intelligence of the intelligent children (Conservative voters’ children). The basis being the idea that working-class children were physically and mentally deficient compared to their middle-class counterparts.

By the time of the Warnock Report in 1978, 40% of schools had special classes. The Report determined the need for terms to be used as descriptive, rather than for classification of a child’s condition. It also suggested that special classes should be flexible in approach, as children should only use them when needed. The needs of the child were being considered as the main reason for the help and support given.

This came into force under the 1981 Education Act, but by 1987 a greater percentage of pupils were in special schools than in the 1950s.

By 1988 and the introduction of the National Curriculum, schools were treated as a business. Though the National Curriculum was based on attainment for all, the introduction of League Tables, in the Act, created a school market.

Creating a marketplace and instigating performance related pay, are not much different to the conditions of the 1870s. With comments on the restrictions of the curriculum, and now University degrees, who is it actually benefitting? It seems more of a backward step than a future development. Who can say what children of the future will go onto be once they have left school and University? They certainly cannot.

Sadly, it shows that 140 years later, education is still based more on economic policy than education policy. Only those who can pass a restrictive curriculum are any value to society. Though not eugenics in name, the rhetoric is incredibly similar.



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