Millions 'wasted' trying to close attainment gap between rich and poor, says leading academic

Politicians should not throw money at “broad policies”, such as providing free school meals for every infant, as they do little to eliminate the achievement gap between the rich and poor, a leading education academic has said.

Kathryn Asbury, co-author of G is for Genes with geneticist Robert Plomin, said universal educational policies are not the most effective way of helping children from poorer backgrounds to reach their potential.

Dr Asbury, a lecturer at the Psychology in Education Research Centre at the University of York, singled out popular interventions such as Bookstart, which gives a bag of books to every newborn child, and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s controversial £1 billion universal free school meals policy as examples that will do nothing to help close the gap between the wealthiest and poorest children.

“If you have across-the-board policies – giving some new benefit to everybody, such as Bookstart or universal free school meals – that will do nothing to close the gap,” Dr Asbury told TES. “It may make the average higher but it will do nothing to close the gap between the top and the tail.

“They are the policies we don’t need to throw money at. You can’t use the environment to narrow the gap, so the money and the policies should be focused on the lower end. By offering something to everybody you take away some of the variation which just makes the effect of genes greater.”

If the government wanted to create a “fairer and more equal society”, the money should be targeted at the most vulnerable people, she added.

Last week, Mr Clegg launched his universal free school meals policy claiming “all the evidence” showed that it would “help improve concentration and raise educational performance so that, regardless of their background, every child can have the best possible start in life”.

The policy, he added, was “one of most progressive changes to our school system for a long time” that would create a “level playing field for all of our children”.

Dr Asbury’s comments echo those of Andrew Sabisky, a graduate student in educational psychology with the Institute of Education, University of London, at the researchEd conference in London last week.

Mr Sabisky, who focused his research on the effect of genes on pupil outcomes and behaviour, said that too much time and effort was being spent by governments on trying to close achievement gaps, despite such gaps being a result of children’s genes rather than their environments.

“A great deal of educational time and resource is spent discussing various ‘achievement gaps’ and how to remedy them – particularly in America, but also in the UK. This may very well be time and money wasted,” he said.

“Politicians and education reformers alike labour under the misapprehension that it is more favourable environments that lead to the successful doing well, and that if we could replicate those environments, achievement gaps would disappear. [But] individual differences in intelligence and academic outcomes are largely a result of genes, not environments.”

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

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