top of page

‘The Making of Intelligence: Cyril Burt, Psychology, Intelligence and Education in Britain, 1909-1976.’

A revisionist examination of three main issues is provided within a British context. How and why the testing of intelligence was constructed in Britain in this period, its influence upon public notions of ‘merit’, social structure and education, and the role of Cyril Burt in shaping events. Scientific and social-cultural aspects are mutually reflexive. The boundaries and intersections between several disparate historiographies such as those of eugenics, genetics, statistics, psychology, education and  British society are traced. The period considered begins with the publication of Burt’s first paper on intelligence in 1909 and concludes with the opening in 1976 of the public phases of the ‘Burt Affair’, posthumous allegations of scientific fraud and malfeasance against Burt, together with James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech that is widely taken as a turning point in the history of British education. A thematic rather than a biographical approach is adopted, and the extensive but often sterile literature on the Burt Affair, is not addressed directly. Burt’s legacy in education and psychology however remain relevant currently and are also traced in examining Burt’s significance.

Four previously unresolved historical questions are addressed. Explanation of why the measurement of inherited intelligence, and the determination of merit receive attention within Britain. The influence of eugenics alone is insufficient in explanation. Secondly, discussion of the reasons for the breakdown after 1950 of notions of hereditary intelligence, despite its previous success. Though the intellectual climate within Britain shifted following the Second World War and the Holocaust, far more than this was involved. The knowledge claims for the existence of intelligence as an unobservable mental phenomenon, rather than just a statistical abstraction is considered. Lack of clarity here renders contingent discussion of intelligence as inchoate or irrelevant. Finally, the related but distinct problem of the lack of an agreed theory of what intelligence represented that was independent of the tests considered to measure it. The implications of the circularity of definitions of ‘Intelligence’ as literally ‘whatever it was that the tests measured’ are discussed. Though largely ignored in our own time, the work of Cyril Burt is central to our historical understanding of the interaction of psychology, the testing of intelligence and British society in the early and mid-twentieth century, and this reappraisal is overdue.


1st Supervisor: Dr Chris Manias

2nd Supervisor: Dr Alana Harris



Before joining CHOSTM as a PhD candidate, I followed several career paths within psychology, education, academia and Local Government, and provide an outline below under professional affiliations and activities. As a mature student of history and financially supporting myself, I successfully took some undergraduate OU courses without graduating, moving to an MA in Military History at Birmingham, before acceptance at King’s. Britain in 1940 was the focus of my revisionist dissertation re-examining the interplay between Churchill, the threat of invasion, and the development of the Home Guard. I tried to challenge the historical orthodoxy and the mythology that clothed these subjects.

Although military history remains an interest, my wider concern is the scientific, social and cultural influence of psychology approached as an independent scientific discipline, rather than as footnotes to the histories of philosophy, biology, medicine or sociology as is often the case within the STM genre. Despite scientific psychology’s relatively short history, the subject has a major bearing upon interpretation of modernism and twentieth century Britain and needs to be studied on its own terms. Confusion of its history with that of psychoanalysis is understandable but unhelpful given the experimental and statistical methods characteristic of much psychology considered as a science. One of the challenges of this field is the accurate interpretation and presentation of these aspects of the subject’s history in plain language, hopefully devoid of its technical complexities that often make this less accessible and daunting to non-specialists. Equally, I do not restrict my interests to the ‘internal’ history of psychology as this forms part the wider interaction of psychology as a science with the social and cultural aspects that provides the historical focus.

As my thesis topic I chose a long-standing research interest, the development and influence of intelligence testing in Britain during the first half of the last century exemplified by the work of Cyril Burt. A fragmented and poorly interpreted area, this reflects the historical boundaries between the histories of eugenics, genetics, psychology, statistics, education and social history. Few have been unwise enough to attempt its exploration, and those who have done so adopted the perspective of the USA, with considerable emphasis upon issues of race and equal opportunities after 1968. Rather, I argue that British developments in the early and mid-century, exemplified through Burt’s writing, are also significant, not least through their connection to eugenics, scientific public intellectuals, demographic statistics, and education in England and Wales. During this period the notion that humankind could be selected and sorted on the basis of the measurement of an assumed innate intelligence that biologically determined social and occupational class was both pervasive and corrosive.  Though Burt’s role is widely overlooked today, his legacy is linked to the examination at 11 for selective grammar school places, reaction against progressive educational thought, and the development of British educational psychology. The notion of intelligence and psychology constructed by Burt underscores many contentious issues of our own time, and a re-evaluation is overdue. Hopefully I can raise awareness and discussion of this neglected area. 


Papers Given:

9th Annual Stories of Psychology Seminar. Psychology, Society and the Public. The History of Psychology and the Media. 7/11/19

‘Psychologists as Public Intellectuals: Cyril Burt at the BBC in the 1930s.’

Professional affiliations and activities:

A senior member of the British Psychological Society, committee member of its Division of History and Philosophy of Psychology and a member of the Division of Child and Educational Psychology, I have taught the subject and its history. As a professional educational and child psychologist, Health and Care Professions Council registered practitioner psychologist, Chartered Psychologist, member of the Association of Educational Psychologists, and principal lecturer in educational psychology, I was involved in professional training and practice, and as an expert professional witness in the legal system and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities tribunals. My interests in industrial and managerial applications of psychology were expressed through senior posts in the education departments of Local Authorities and membership of the Chartered Institute of Management. My experience within education was as a qualified teacher in a range of British schools and as a lecturer.

bottom of page