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The role of genetics in education

William Byford treads warily into the educational debate

Today’s news media contains reports upon research recently conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, which suggests that genetics plays a greater part in determining the differences in GCSE exam results than either the influence of a pupil’s educational experience or family environment.

The King’s College London study was based upon a group of 11,117 identical and non-identical twins and appears to demonstrate that a child’s genes are an important indicator of educational performance in core subjects, accounting for 53% of the difference in scores in English, 55% in maths and 58% in science.

Although the study’s authors suggest that the primary effect of their study is simply to suggest that pupils tend to differ in how easily their learn at school and therefore ‘flexible’ educational systems are more likely to provide generally higher overall standards than ‘one size fits all’ versions, their findings will inevitably reunite the row over the role and effect of genetics upon both education and opportunities in life. Those most alarmed at the possibility that nature – rather than nurture – is the key factor in educational attainment will fear that (as has occurred in the past) this will give greater sway to right-wing political views, i.e. borne of the line that genetics may justify inequality in life. Put at its bluntest, that society should concentrate upon ‘educating the best and forget the rest’.

Whilst I acknowledge the adage that, as we get older, we tend to become more conservative (with a ‘small’ C) and set in our views – something that the more switched-on amongst us, including myself, try to guard against – I personally don’t have an issue with, or objection to, the concept that genetics are a major factor in life chances and achievement.

Anyone with a passing interest in horse or greyhound racing knows the importance of inherited characteristics. It’s the basis of all theories of animal breeding. If you have an outstanding sprinter male horse, and put it to a brood mare renowned for her stamina, there’s a chance that together they may produce a sprinter with stamina. They might well not, of course, because there’s no guarantee in these things. But there’s at least a chance – and the possibility of a chance is what motivates all those interested in horse and dog racing, from owners and pundits right through to the punters.

It is an entirely appropriate goal of human society that every one of its members, whether his or her intrinsic intelligence and other attributes be great or small, has an equal basic worth and should be given every opportunity to make the best of themselves.

However, where I part company with those of a socialist inclination – if that’s what I’m referring to – is the thrust that, since by definition not all can possibly attain greatness (however that is defined), none should be allowed to. Indeed, by extrapolation, that the only fair society is one in which ‘the lowest common denominator’ must be imposed as the norm, lest an outstanding individual should gain an advantage. Plus, of course, (runs this theory) any advantage is unfair.

You don’t have to be a Darwinist, or proponent of National Selection, or indeed the ‘Selfish Gene’, to know that life is just not like that.

If it was, our species would have become extinct tens of thousands, if not millions, of years ago.

About William Byford

A partner in an international firm of loss adjusters, William is a keen blogger and member of the internet community. More Posts