Base education around pupils' genetics, schools advised

By Catherine Lough on 01 October 2019

Leading geneticist Robert Plomin tells headteachers how they could use genotyping test scores to personalise learning

A geneticist has argued that schools should be able to use pupils’ scores from genotyping tests as a way of tailoring education more closely to their needs.

Speaking at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) – an association of elite independent schools – Professor Robert Plomin said genotyping could be used to create “polygenic” scores that would enable personalised learning for pupils.


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“You will have parents coming to you saying, ‘My kid has a strong genetic profile for reading disability and needs special services’, or for academic attainment…you can make these predictions at birth because your DNA doesn’t change throughout your life. So, this is a very big deal, and it’s happening now,” Professor Plomin said.

The academic from King's College London, told the conference in London yesterday said that genetics turned "the idea of social mobility on its head".

Mike Buchanan, HMC executive director, suggested that Professor Plomin should explain that view to the Labour party – which recently voted to redistribute private school assets.

He also predicted that the science could lead to situations where parents would demand particular services from independent schools based on their child’s genetic profile.

“One might get to the point where, instead of children and parents coming to a school and saying, ‘Here’s the IQ score for my child’, they would say ‘Here’s the polygenic profile, what can you do?',” Mr Buchanan added.

'Predict or prevent' educational problems

Professor Plomin said the scores could be used to “predict or prevent” educational problems, and to move away from a one-size-fits-all system.

“What [my research] suggests is a model of education rather than instruction, it suggests we need to go with the genetic flow... whether it’s personalisation per se or just more generally recognising that children differ in their learning and their interests, appetites as well as aptitudes, and those are very substantially genetically different, and we need to recognise that," the academic said.

“And it’s not to give up and say we can’t do anything about it, it’s to say we need to find out what kids like to do and what they’re good at and fostering that and that’s why I think private schools are so important because the resources they can offer is so much greater than in the state sector."

Professor Plomin, who has argued that intelligence is based on genetic heritability in his book Blueprint: how DNA makes us who we are, said that the idea of social mobility was possibly in conflict with the notion of genetically inherited intelligence.

In his view, one would expect more highly educated parents to produce academically able children.

Describing how people tended to marry those with a similar educational background to themselves, he said: "Kids are getting a double dose of genes for higher or lower educational achievement, and that spreads out the distribution.

"The idea is that heritability is inimical to social mobility. But if you understand heritability, it is an index of social mobility, because if you get rid of environmental differences of privilege and access, you are left with the genetic differences.

"So, the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] says England is not a very socially mobile country, and that’s because there’s a strong correlation between parents’ educational achievement or socio-economic status and the kids'.

"But from a genetic point of view, higher parent offspring resemblance is mostly driven by genetics, not by environmental influences, so it turns the idea of social mobility on its head.”

Mr Buchanan said: “I hope you’ll take that and explain it to Angela Rayner [Labour's shadow education secretary] for us.”