'As difficult as it is, it's important we discuss the part played by genes in cognitive ability'

As a society, we need to teach our children that it is OK for the road to lean onwards rather than upwards, and that success is a diverse concept, writes one academic

Dr Kathryn Asbury

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Pupils differ in how intelligent they are, partly for genetic reasons, and this is related to how academically successful they are. The same can be said for conscientiousness, motivation and self-confidence, but it is intelligence that gets people really hot under the collar. This was evident in the furore ignited last weekend when Teach First removed an article on the topic from their website, explaining in a tweet that: 

"We made a mistake. We published 2 blogs with opposing views as part of a recent debate on education. One was wrong. We’ve removed it. Sorry."

The “wrong” article was written by Toby Young but, as several experts have agreed, it accurately reflected robust, replicated research in this area. 

Young pointed out that individual differences in cognitive ability are genetically influenced, and that cognitive ability is the strongest predictor we have of GCSE achievement. He concluded – and this was understandably a sticking point for Teach First – that schools can’t do much to ameliorate the effects of inequality. Teach First swiftly removed the post, along with a rebuttal from Professor Sonia Blandford, thereby opening themselves up to accusations of censorship and science denial. It was a daft move, and I imagine there have been some interesting meetings in the Teach First nerve-centre this week. 

However, the incident has paved the way for a useful discussion of how schools can offer equal educational opportunities without perpetuating the myth that individual differences are entirely explained by social circumstances. Such idealism stands in the way of offering the best possible learning opportunities to the very children and young people Teach First most want to support.

Blandford’s article was collateral damage in the whole debacle. This was unfortunate because, although her rebuttal was flawed in a couple of ways, it also made important points that merited discussion. The first flaw was Blandford’s suggestion that heritability equates to genetic determinism. In fact, heritability estimates tell us the extent to which behavioural differences between individuals (eg, where they fall on the IQ distribution) are explained by genetic differences between them. They do not predetermine anything, telling us what is rather than what can be. For example, I can gain a couple of inches by wearing heels or I can correct my vision by wearing glasses, both regardless of my genetic predispositions. The second flaw is related to the distinction between raising average performance (which everyone agrees is possible) and reducing individual differences (which is much more difficult). Blandford argued that there is no evidence the attainment gap can’t be closed for all children, but it is important to note that there is no evidence that it can. 

The large body of evidence we do have strongly suggests that we can never eliminate individual differences. If every child had identical schooling and an identical home life, there would still be significant differences between them and these differences would all be explained by genetic effects. 

Learning is much harder for some children than others and much of the reason for this lies in their DNA. This is a fact, rooted in evidence, and it is up to us, as a society, to decide how best to respond to it. I agree with Blandford that we should respond in a way that values each member of society as an equal and would add that society should give the most to those with the greatest need (whether their need is social, developmental, physical or cognitive).

It is important to be clear that my views, while informed by my knowledge and understanding of the evidence, also reflect my personal values. The same body of evidence can clearly be used to draw different conclusions. I agree with Blandford that societal solutions need to reflect the aspirations of a wider range of people and that we need to broaden our definition of attainment. This position is not inconsistent with behavioural genetic evidence on intelligence or achievement.

We live in a society in which every stage of education is defined by narrow targets: phonics check, Sats, five good GCSEs, followed by A levels or an alternative pathway to university. This limited range of (clearly IQ-loaded) targets is bound to favour those for whom learning comes easily and to disadvantage those for whom it doesn’t. 

We have created a situation in which higher education is seen as the only respectable destination for young people, even if they become below average students at below average institutions with below average graduate employment prospects. We have created a narrative in which anything different is considered second best and we consistently fail to get a credible and attractive apprenticeship system off the ground (notwithstanding pockets of excellence).

All of this is done in the name of social mobility but it leaves me wondering if social mobility is a red herring. Maybe it’s ok for the road to lead onwards rather than upwards, so long as that road is well maintained and leads to somewhere that people aspire to go. As a society, we need to build a system in which there are many more diverse pathways to success, and to modify our education system to support this. This is the single biggest way in which we can meaningfully nurture individual differences.

Social changes of this magnitude would have knock-on effects for schools and teachers. 

Schools would need to revise their infrastructure and teachers would focus much less on pushing square pegs into round holes at a predetermined speed. This all depends on social change though, as it is clearly unreasonable to ask teachers to support children in working towards diverse goals, incrementally and at a pace appropriate for them, while also judging them on the proportion of pupils to exceed the national average in Sats. 

Young was right to point out that some children are disadvantaged by genetically influenced cognitive abilities. Blandford was right to argue that no child is born to fail but, by failing to take the science of individual differences into account, society sets many up to do so.

Dr Kathryn Asbury is a senior lecturer in psychology in education at the University of York 

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Dr Kathryn Asbury

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