Robbins sixty years on:  ability, attainment, and the dark side

The Robbins ‘Higher Education’ report emerged sixty years ago this week (24th October 1963). In the days that followed, its potential impact became apparent and a new age of education in the UK was dawning. A massive expansion of higher education was seen as necessary and promised to “bring with it a very extensive transformation of the social and economic picture”.  It certainly did that.  But there was a dark side as Robbins and the committee wrestled with the idea that became known as the ‘Robbins Principle’ that Higher Education

 “Should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment“.

It openly addressed the “pool of ability” that could not be accurately determined at the time. Robbins expected no “shortage of potential ability” despite consideration of “inherited potential”.  Robbins did not duck the problem, but this raised the spectre of the whole scheme being predicated upon the numbers of students who had enough ability.  If ability was measured, then the numbers could be predicted. The question is now; what would Robbins make of the current advances in genetics and understanding ability? It is likely there would be no change of course.

At the time of Robbins, I was eight years old at a primary school in Coventry and unaware of the effect it would have on my life. I was yet to feel the impact of the 11-plus exam that eventually propelled me across the city on two buses every day to a grammar school. Plans to raise the school leaving age to sixteen were delayed to 1972, so I was set on an accelerated course to do my O-levels a year early at fifteen in 1970.  None of this mattered to me then, but my mother was acutely aware of the opportunities that she never had being placed before her children. The social pressures were mounting.

Robbins and the seismic shift in social mobility.

The wording of the principle was no accident and it set the scene for me and so many others. The report at 335 pages was backed up by a vast amount of evidence that is lodged in the National Archives and elsewhere. The twelve strong committee was strong on experience in education, industry, and science to back up the economics strength of Robbins (see footnote). The enormous vision of the work was only outstripped by the enormity of its implementation. Its conclusions were accepted just after the resignation of the Prime Minister and acted upon by the incoming Labour government a year later. But the economic challenge was daunting as the incoming government wrestled with the costs.

The future demand for higher education and the places needed to meet it.

This was the title of Robbins CHAPTER VI and was central to the Higher Education remit of the committee and the outcomes from the report. Robbins was asked to consider the scale of higher education in this country up to about 1980. There were two logical approaches to the task.

Firstly, to estimate what output is required from higher education to meet the country’s needs for qualified people.

Secondly, to estimate the number of places required to meet the demand for entry from suitably qualified applicants.

It was decided early on that the second approach provided the sounder basis of estimation of numbers and outcomes. This then set in train several logical consequences. The numbers taking qualifying examinations across the UK was rising and the demand would rise further as the population continued to increase fast. Since most were already born, the imperative was obvious. The key statistical evidence that was crucial to the decisions was coordinated by economists Claus Moser, Richard Layard and statistician Joseph Irwin. Their observations were key to the report and an overview, published by them in 1964 provides the best insight into the basis for the decisions made. It was a Herculean endeavour (see Planning the Scale of Higher Education in Britain: Some Statistical Problems. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (General) Vol. 127, No. 4 (1964), pp. 473-526).

Many variables in play.

The extensive work of Moser et al considered many variables, not just ability as shown here. It was forward thinking and still relevent today.

Although they didn’t claim this was a complete list, they did not add the variable of government policy and a willingness to admit more students to the ranks of the elite. Moves to level out many of these variables are still missing today.

The political climate.

The simple observation then was the UK was falling behind other competing nations. Its education system was antiquated and failing to generate sufficiently skilled working people. The future was looking even bleaker. The White Paper ‘Technical Education’ of 1956 painted a grim reality for the government of the time. It led to the Colleges of Advanced Technology emerging before Robbins. There was however an over-reliance on industry advancing a plan that was failing and the Polytechnics emerged fast post-Robbins.

The role of family background was also seen as critical at that time, and this was becoming embedded in government thinking. This came out in one of its key conclusions.

This was only ‘half our future’.

Although not mentioned by Robbins, a critical report on the state of secondary education had emerged in August the same year.  The Newsome Report  ‘Half Our Future’ from the Central Advisory Council for Education (England), written by John Newsome and thirty-three others (mostly from the education and teaching fields), was equally important in focusing the attention of government. It observed that,

“There is very little doubt that among our children there are reserves of ability which can be tapped if the country wills the means. One of the means is a longer school life. There is, surely, something of an anomaly in the fact”.

The need to extend the school leaving age was seen as urgent and the recommendation was,

“An immediate announcement should be made that the school leaving age will be raised to sixteen for all pupils entering the secondary schools from September 1965 onwards.”

The theme of untapped ability pervaded most thinking with school leaving age being a major block on progress. So much so that secret cabinet papers from 1967 revealed the extent of the dilemma (National Archive 10th July,1967 Cabinet Public Expenditure Education Memorandum by the Secretary of State for Education and Science).

But what about the cost of university and the impact of fees and loans.

The Robbins Report addressed the possibility of “Loans to students for the payment of fees and maintenance”.  This may surprise some today in the light of the implications for the ongoing ‘ability vs ability to pay’ dilemma. Confidential Cabinet papers, from earlier in the month, when the report was first seen, sought to duck the issue and put it on hold with “but there is no need in my view to refer to this in our first statement” (National Archive Cabinet Papers October 1963 the Robbins Report Memorandum by The Chief Secretary to The Treasury and Paymaster General).

By 1967 the idea was going very cold indeed. Anthony Crosland, Secretary of State for Education and Science, put it well in a memorandum to the cabinet.

“Although pressure grew from the Treasury to introduce student loans, the DES was able to fend this off with the argument that with loans the Government would lose control of a significant portion of HE funding, and the fact that such a scheme was unlikely to be self-financing for ten years or more.”

(National Archives. Crosland memorandum to Cabinet, ‘Public expenditure: education’, 10 July 1967).

It seems the issue was indeed shelved for a long time as a political ‘no go’ area. Certainly, it seemed at odds with the central tenet of the principle. Now it is normal.

The ‘potential ability’ question.

Many recent government reports simply avoided the question of ability. The idea of setting minimum attainment grades for university entry in the Augar report from 2019 was dropped fast and passed on for others to address. ‘Ability’ as a criterion was avoided from the outset in favour of ‘attainment’.

By contrast, this question was hiding in a dark corner throughout the Robbins deliberations. Many observers at the time incorrectly and naïvely thought that an expansion of university provision would be limited by the availability of suitable candidates. It was an elite centric view.

In some ways that might have been correct in practical terms. A school leaving age of fifteen at the time led to many not attaining GCE qualifications and Grammar schools only took a minority of pupils based on an 11-plus exam.

However, by the time of Robbins, the exam itself had been shown to be badly flawed and did not predict the ability or potential of many pupils. In their text ‘Admission to Grammar Schools’ in 1957 Yates and Pigeon (British Library) showed that far too many were “misallocated” and were excluded at that point. Yet it persisted as a pinch point in the system that limited numbers for many years.

Genetics, Social Structure and Intelligence.

Although not referred to, this was the title of a highly influential paper of the time in 1958. It was written by sociologist Albert Halsey of Oxford University who was from a working-class background and who went on to advise Secretary of State for Education and Science, Anthony Crossland in the Wilson administration in the 1960s (A. H. Halsey et al 1958 The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 9, pp. 15-28. British Library). Its aim was,

“To consider the question of social class differences in measured intelligence as an illustration of the more general problem of the relation between social structure and the distribution of genetic characteristics in populations”.

Measured intelligence could only be done using IQ tests and the results were compared across different social groups. The outcome was clear and concluded with,

“From this and from a consideration of the small reduction in the variance of measured intelligence which results from classifying children according to paternal occupation it seems reasonable to conclude that the observed differences between social classes in measured intelligence are more likely to be explained by environmental rather than genetic factors. Accordingly, the research problem becomes one of disentangling the environmental components of social class”.

This has been evident since the time of Robbins. But nothing much has changed as social advantages always seem to trump ability.

I became aware of the views of Halsey from series of six Reith lectures for the BBC, one on ‘Class-Ridden Prosperity’ on 18th January 1978 stood out.

Attainment bottlenecks.

Also, many students failed to attain A-level results high enough. It was not widely known at the time that the A-Level marking was ‘rigged’ to allow only a small percentage to attain the higher grades of C and above needed. This was a fixed percentage and was only revealed at the Joint Matriculation Board as late as 1977 (see TEFs 17th August 2018 ‘A-Level Playing Field or not: Have things changed over time?’). This underhand strategy limited access to the ‘best’ universities despite a belief that A-Level grades did not necessarily predict degree outcome for many students.

Although it is currently concluded that A and A* grades at A-level are reasonable indicators that a first-class degree will be obtained, most studies fail to emphasise that a significant proportion of students with lower A-level grades gain firsts. In one study from 2015, almost 15% of students at Russell Group Universities with no A/A* A-Levels got firsts These are considerable numbers making major gains at university and this might be better acknowledged (see ‘The role of the A* grade at A level as a predictor of university performance in the United Kingdom. Carmen Vidal Rodeiro & Nadir Zanini Oxford Review of Education, 2015. Vol. 41, No. 5, 647–670 and HESA September 2015/21 ‘Differences in degree outcomes: The effect of subject and student characteristics’ ).

Limiting numbers and ‘inherited potential’.

Hidden in the Robbins report is one reason proposed why the numbers of students suitable for university might be limited over the subsequent twenty years. This idea persists today but is rarely raised in public.

“The crucial question is whether, within the next twenty years, the growth in the output of qualified school leavers is likely to be limited by a scarcity of inherited potential ability. This raises the fundamental issue of whether the pool of ability, as it is usually called, can be measured and, if so, how.”

However, the evidence in Robbins led to the conclusion that, 

“There is no risk that within the next 20 years the growth in the proportion of young people with qualifications and aptitudes suitable for entry to higher education will be restrained by a shortage of potential ability”. 

The history after that reveals this was clearly the case and the potential of the country was suddenly unlocked. The reasoning and statistical evidence that led to this observation was complex but inexorable in its logic.

The genetic question.

The paper by Halsey in 1958 worked with what it called ‘measured intelligence’.
Ability was measured with IQ tests and was considered a proxy for ‘inherited potential’. However, it had become increasingly obvious that the outcome for individuals was biased by background. Robbins was not able to come to terms with the rapidly advancing field of Genetics and Molecular Biology but must have been aware of its possibilities. Would Robbins have avoided its consequences today? Would the advanced gene analysis data available now have changed his outlook?

Halsey also had only a rudimentary appreciation of the biochemical basis of inheritance. Despite this, he was already aware that intelligence as a trait was determined by many different genes combined.

“Though innate intelligence may legitimately be inferred from available evidence, the evidence is also strong that it is determined not by one gene but polygenically”.

He was fully aware that the random assortment of chromosomes and genes at each generation would yield a different permutation every time so that,

“No two persons alive (identical twins excepted) carry the same genes”.

This is despite the fact that the chemical basis of inheritance, DNA, had only been discovered in 1928 by a Microbiologist, Fred Griffith in the UK and confirmed by Oswald AveryColin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty in the USA in 1944. The chemical structure of DNA was revealed by the work of Franklin, Watson, and Crick in the UK in 1953. The relationship between DNA and the function of genes was proposed by 1957. The crucial experiment by Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl in the USA in 1958 confirmed how DNA replicated itself in cells.

The DNA sequencing chemistries got off to a slow start in the 1970s but advanced in the 1980s and 1990s. The first completed sequence map of the human genome was released on 14th April 2003. Now we have more information that links measures of intelligence with genes.

Robbins and Halsey must have known of the early advances and wary of the potential implications of the sequencing of DNA in genes associated with ‘inherited potential’ in the future. But for them this was still a far-off concern.

Today, our knowledge about genes and their action has advanced fast and well over the horizons of Robbins and Halsey. The irony is that a significant contribution to the basic research involved was in the UK and was conducted in the new universities by students and staff from modest backgrounds.

But the conclusion is still that it is a complex multi gene or ‘polygenic’ trait that relies more on chance than direct inheritance. Heritability is caused by many genes each having a very small effect. This idea has been tested subsequently by whole genome DNA studies on very large numbers of humans. This approach is called Genome-wide Complex Trait Analysis (GCTA).

Drawing lots for the right ‘polygenic’ permutation.

The discovery of many genes associated with abilities and ‘measured intelligence’ has expanded in recent years. The genetic measurements are certain at a molecular level. However, how ‘cognitive ability’ or ‘intelligence’ is measured is a major constraint. The studies use genome-wide association study (GWAS) methods to link specific gene sequence variations (known as single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) to observable traits, or ‘measured intelligence’, of individuals.

By 2018, James Lee of the University of Minnesota and seventy-seven co-workers reported that the number of SNPs had expanded to at least 1,271 in a screening of 1.1 million people. They used a ‘multi-trait’ approach, that considered educational years, cognitive performance, and mathematical ability, to make the associations to ‘measured intelligence’ (James J. Lee et al 2018 ‘Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a genome-wide association study of educational attainment in 1.1 million individuals’  Nature Genetics 50, 1112–1121).

There are now numerous ongoing studies to determine the function of the genes identified. It is likely that we are only at an early stage of discovery and that the numbers of genes are very much underestimated as the biochemical basis of the complexities of human behaviour are revealed. There is a danger of over interpretation of the results as we enter a new biological age where genetics and social policies collide. We need to know more about the impact of a harsh environment on child development and the resultant epigenetic effects that are becoming only too painfully obvious as the research unfolds.

A more detailed treatise of the dangers was set out in TEFS 10th January 2020 ‘Genetics, Intelligence, Social Mobility and Chinese Whispers’.

Robbins in 2023?

I like to think that today Robbins would have been just as diligent as he was in 1963 and consider all the evidence linked to ability and the dangers of misinterpretation therein. Yet, I think because of this he would have come to the same conclusions and would encourage us to widen higher education for many more students. 

I told myself many years ago that it doesn’t matter how high your ‘measured intelligence’ might be. What counts is what you do. I told students that its like saying you are the most expensive footballer, but instead people only want to know how many goals you have scored.

The problem arises when someone moves the society goalposts and stops you from getting on the pitch.

The authorMike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

Footnote: Robbins Committee members

Lionel Robbins: Economist

David Anderson: Civil Engineer

Kitty Anderson: Head teacher

Anthony Chenevix-Trench: School teacher

James Drever: Psychologist and University Principal

Lionel Elvin: Education academic and Director of London University Institute of Education

Helen Gardner: English Literature academic

Edward Herbert: Engineer and leading machine tool manufacturer

Patrick Linstead: Academic, chemist

Philip Morris: Surgeon and academic

Harold Shearman: VP of Workers Educational Association

Reginald Southall: Petrochemical Industry leader

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