Gene-ie out of the bottle?

The slow-motion debate about the role heritability in educational achievement rumbles on. In an article for the current Prospect magazine, Jill Boucher who is a professor of developmental psychology at City University has written about her own experiences with her adoptive (now adult) children.

She claims that the science is clear – genetic inheritance does play some part in intellectual development, educational outcomes and perhaps social mobility as it does in every other aspect of human development. (The article does not delve deeply into the science – it’s probably not the most appropriate place to do so).The fact that those of certain socio-political persuasions find this unpalatable nonetheless cannot deny the science, and may in fact cause the issue to be driven underground rather than to be identified and addressed.

Boucher and her husband, both holders of doctorates, adopted two children who it turned out, were of unremarkable academic ability. Despite every possible exposure to educationally-positive values and environments, and the role-modelling and support of two highly-educated parents, neither child achieved more than a small number of G.C.S.E.’s. However, both are socially well-adjusted and hold down secure jobs, one as a lorry driver and the other as a chef. This is, of course ‘merely’ an individual anecdote, but one that nonetheless poses a difficult question for those who maintain that the correct environmental factors are all that is necessary for high achievement to follow.

A false dichotomy has been set up by those who reject the genetic claim: that to accept it is to give up on the developmental potential of education, somehow akin to eugenics, and at least tantamount to writing off large numbers of people from an early age. This is not so: to accept that people have their limits is certainly not to give up on developing them as far as they may be able. I am quite comfortable with my own approach as evidence of this – for all my love of high academic levels, I would rather work with less able but positively-inclined pupils than brilliant but lazy ones. Neither is the genetic case an argument for only concentrating educational resources on the brightest – as Professor Robert Plomin (whose work sparked the debate when picked up by Michael Gove’s special adviser) has said, one use of such information might be to target special needs provision earlier and more accurately.

Boucher says that in no way did their children’s lack of educational achievement compromise their experience of a caring upbringing, nor has it made them deficient members of society. The assumption that those who do not achieve high academic standards will somehow be deficient and most-likely ‘failures’ is arrogant and demeaning in its own right, and verges on a contingent view of human affection.

Rejecting the genetic argument also risks setting up unrealistic expectations of the education system: in a purely nurture-based model, the failure of an individual to achieve highly can only be down to the neglect of his or her teachers and/or parents. Equally, such a model can also be responsible for the setting of unachievable targets for pupils, with the potentially morale-damaging consequences of their failing to reach them. (Interestingly, I have also heard rumours that in a performance-related pay issue in the United States, a teacher sued her low-achieving pupils for loss of earnings. The mind boggles at the possibilities…)

For all that we largely lack a formally selective educational system, the tyranny of high achievement is, if anything, greater than ever. Only it is now predicated not on intelligence for its own sake, but for the potential it supposedly creates for high earnings and a climb up the ladders of power; the zero-sum culture now thoroughly ingrained in the outlook of many high-achieving schools certainly echoes the values of a winner-takes-all view of the world. This is a visibly-powerful driver in the social-educational values of south-east England, where the assumption seems to be that to have made it, one (still) needs to have secured a plum job in the City. The whole notion of educational ‘success’ has been narrowed to the extent that it is now defined by a small spectrum of income and occupational parameters that the majority of people will never attain – and in many case will probably never want or need to.

By identifying this issue, Boucher has highlighted one of my own enduring concerns about the high-stakes model: it imposes an implicit value-system onto what education is for – the acquisition of wealth and power, which is increasingly what educational ‘success’ seems to mean. As Boucher points out, what is wrong with educating people for a more modest life? It is arguably better to produce a society of well-balanced, responsible individuals who perform unspectacular but nonetheless very necessary roles, rather than produce a few high flyers and label everyone else as also-rans. This is neither defeatist nor anti-excellence, simply a more realistic appraisal of what may be possible and indeed desirable.

In my view, the acceptance of the genetic factor is best taken at a general level. To attempt to predetermine any one individual’s capabilities as a result of it would indeed be insidious, but used as a general rule of thumb, it can simply allow us to make a more realistic appraisal of what might be possible, accepting that success and failure need not only be defined in terms of the highest grades. Neither need it taint the genuine pleasure we feel in those individuals who go on to achieve more than might have been expected of them.

The much-vaunted case for education as generator of social-mobility (only ever upwards, note) may be both overstated and unnecessary.

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