It’s not often I’m left speechless, but today The Independent has managed it twice in one edition. It carries a report that Michael Gove may have met an academic, Professor Robert Plonin, whose research suggests that cognitive abilities may be up to 70% genetically determined. The work is apparently ‘contentious’ because “ministers and educationalists have long believed that any child, from whatever background, can achieve the highest academic ability”. I wonder if they also believe that people can wish themselves taller or better-looking. I wonder if the also believe that inherited physiology plays no part in who wins an Olympic 100 metre sprint. Gove’s controversial policy adviser Dominic Cummings has also shown interest in the work – but is now leaving his post under a cloud.
Quite apart from my usual irritation at the potential distortion introduced by citing figures with such precision, I admit that I had never considered that anyone actually believes this. For some strange reason, it appears the brain is exempt from the genetic inheritance that influences all other human characteristics!
Over the past 26 years, many thousands of children have passed through my classroom door. That constitutes a reasonable sample-size for some informal impressions to be drawn. The variability in the behaviour (in its widest sense) of those children is simply too great for it to be attributed solely to their experiences with teachers. Even those with the same educational backgrounds exhibit wide variations; to attribute that only to ineffective or inappropriate teaching is naive, or at very least, to have unrealistic expectations of teachers whose responsibility extends to hundreds of individuals. Last week, I watched as two randomly drawn children attempted the same task (not in a lesson situation). One struggled to envisage the nature of the task, even with help, while the second romped through it in seconds, unaided.
According to The Independent, the genetic study “will send shivers down the spine of every parent”. In its editorial, it goes on to imply that such findings, if validated, would risk children being ‘written off as unteachable’ and claims that teachers would use such information as an excuse for accepting low standards from their pupils. The paper also makes the usual error of conflating exam results with educational effectiveness. This completely ignores the educational responsibilities and impacts of people other than teachers – let alone all manner of other factors – and conveniently removes from parents the responsibility to participate in and be accountable for their own children’s up-bringing.
If true, this has to be the worst case of a politically-correct institutional blindness that I have encountered for a very long time. It is also at variance with the general experience of pretty much every teacher I have ever spoken to.
I really expect more from a relatively thoughtful newspaper, and it is irresponsible for it to be reporting this in such an unbalanced way. As Professor Plonin points out, such information could make it easier to identify special needs earlier – and in any case, it displays depressingly low confidence in teachers, especially those who work in Special Needs, to imply that they will lose interest in all but the brightest.
The view that people do not have external limits on their capabilities is a catastrophic example of social-engineering delusion, whose provenance is the positive-thinking myth that that real life can be made perfect if only people do their jobs right. I see no evidence of disabled athletes being written off simply because they will never be the fastest people on earth, and I see no reason why teachers should not accept that a child has its limits and still strive to develop that person as far as they can go. That would result in a more realistic appraisal of both expectations and outcomes, something that is as important for the child as the teacher. It may, however, strengthen the case that not all children are equally-suited to the same kind of education – which of course flies in the face of the comprehensive ideal.
Anyone who has observed children at length (or indeed people in general) cannot but be left with the impression that the variability is immense and probably multi-causal. Certainly, good teaching can bring out the best of someone’s potential – but to ignore the impact of genetics, to say nothing of the quality of parenting, general upbringing and other environmental factors, is to live in cloud-cuckoo land.
And to make educational policy – let alone holding teachers to account – based on such presumptions is nothing short of scandalous.