No magic bullet

Robert Plomin’s team at King’s College, London published its report into heritability in education this week, and it has been widely reported in the U.K. media. Richard Garner, writing in The Independent, observed that so long as a hysterical knee-jerk reaction can be avoided by certain factions, this could provide useful input for the future educational debate. Thankfully, at this early stage this does seem to be the case, though there has been no shortage of correspondence about it.

Speaking on Radio Four’s Today Programme, Plomin himself welcomed the debate about how such information could be interpreted in both right-wing and left-wing ways, accepting this as inevitable and pointing out that his results carry no inherent political bias. Such a measured stance should increase confidence in his approach and motives.

It is more concerning that there is already something of a call to draw ‘policy conclusions’ from his findings. Inevitably, one of these involves the scrapping of the National Curriculum in favour of ‘personal learning plans’.  This seems to me to be the fledgling appropriation of the findings to promote the progressive educational agenda and develop yet another educational initiative, while conveniently also providing a pretext for the scrapping a much-disliked piece of bureaucracy. This is precisely the approach that the progressive wing of education always uses to neutralise its opponents; as we know, Confirmation Bias predisposes people to see in things that which they already believe… (yes, me included).

I wonder how those drawing such conclusions (which would in my opinion make the life of the classroom teacher even more complex and burdensome) would feel if we extended the idea to its logical conclusion that children of similar ‘personal programme’ needs were grouped together into workable classes. We could call them sets, or – heaven forbid, streams. (Not that I am an advocate of the latter). Maybe we could go even further and group like children into schools specifically designed for their own personal needs. Now there’s blasphemy for you.

Personally, I find Plomin’s findings plausible. He suggests that around 40% of progress in Humanities subjects such as my own is heritable, which rises into the fifties in languages and mathematics. While I’m habitually sceptical of such precise figures, I suspect that Plomin himself doesn’t set too much store by them either. It does seem reasonable that subjects such as History and Geography, while knowledge-heavy, are more ‘acquirable’ than those that depend more fundamentally on intellectual processing of abstracts such as numerical or linguistic logic. It might also justify the importance of the core subjects – but it could also suggest that progress in humanities and other subjects is more likely to be hampered by poor core skills than lack of subject-ability. I find that a useful concept to work with, no matter whether the actual figures are accurate or not. It’s worth observing, too, that fewer people have such large issues accepting that heritability plays a part in other process-dependent subjects – Art, Drama and Music.

The essential thing here (which I regrettably have low hopes for) is that Plomin’s work is not misappropriated to drive one or other agenda, but that its lessons are taken into the general working knowledge of educationalists and their political masters. I’m not convinced that it will be helpful to derive specific policies from this, be they more zero-sum arguments over teaching styles or the best ways to direct funding, but if we learn to accept the limits of what education can realistically achieve, that will be extremely useful.

Plomin himself accepts that genetic inheritance is not strongly deterministic, saying that it informs ‘tendencies’ rather than anything more unalterable; we should beware reading more into it than that. His comments that the outcome-differences between even the best and worst schools are relatively small compared with genetic factors, while the stark difference is between education and no education, ought to be very helpful in developing more realistic expectations of teachers, schools, and pupils – and the relationships between them.

As always, this educational research will be the better used for its general lessons than treated as some kind of magic bullet.

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