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“Schools matter but they don’t make a difference” (the words of a geneticist)

Updated: Nov 19, 2019




A recently published book, by geneticist Robert Plomin, suggests that academic attainment is best explained by genetic influence, not parental encouragement, lesson quality or affluence. Blueprint is the book that Plomin has waited thirty years to publish and details his work in exploring genetic influences on behaviours such as mental illness, intelligence and educational achievement. The title above, “Schools matter but they don’t make a difference”, is a chapter title in which he argues that the best predictor of educational attainment is the heritability of genes.


The book, at first glance, is no friend of the teaching profession. Its immediate implications are that teacher attempts to improve student grades are futile. In the last twenty years the dominant thinking in the teaching profession is that good practice, better writing frames, dynamic learning, differentiation, lesson observations and varied assessment techniques (to name a few) will conspire to improve student outcomes. Based on extensive research, Robert Plomin disagrees.


Much of the research cited involves correlating a given behavioural trait (say schizophrenia) between family members. Where a cohort of parents have developed schizophrenia, the researcher can determine genetic influence by investigating how often the parent's child also has it, called a concordance rate. Identical twins are useful subjects; in sharing all of their DNA, identical twins provide a valuable concordance rate for different behaviours.


Early on, Plomin defines an important term:


Heritability describes how much of the differences between individuals can be explained by their inherited DNA differences.


For the most part, the DNA that humans share is the same: “heritability,” writes Plomin, “is about the 1 per cent of DNA that differs between us.” If intelligence has a 0.8 heritability, this means that, across a population, intelligence has high heritability, that is it can account for much of the variation that exists between people's intelligence.

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Plomin debunks the view that parents have a significant impact on their children, maintaining that whilst parents could make a difference, they often do not make a difference. If a child enjoys reading, and is good at reading, this has little to do with parental influence. The given parent might think that their child is a keen reader because of that Complete Works of Shakespeare sitting proudly on the bookshelf. Instead, having a high heritability for literacy already, the child’s parents are more enthusiastic in their encouragement because the child responds to 'reading time', because the child is inherently gifted at, and enjoys, reading and stories. In Plomin’s words, parents “foster their (child’s) appetites and aptitudes”.


Plomin's logic works similarly for schools. Schools matter because the child has appetites and aptitudes that the school can nurture; schools don’t make a difference because the child’s interest and talents are already determined. The point about grades is that they naturally represent different outcomes in children (no point having them if everyone gets the same grades). When it comes to understanding any differences in educational attainment, Plomin returns to the idea of heritability. What teachers see in their students, the one who loves numeracy and the one who sits in a Maths lesson hoping to never be asked a question, is the manifestation of the 1 per cent of DNA that is not shared or innate. The child is good at Maths because of heritable traits; teachers respond to these manifesting talents and the high grades follow.


When Plomin correlated GCSE scores with Ofsted ratings of secondary schools he found that Ofsted’s ratings had little relevance to the students’ achievements. Being in a school which has low ratings for lesson quality actually has little bearing (under two per cent) on how well the child will perform. This might seem surprising, but in a way this is obvious. Even in a failing school, some children do well. How can that be if the quality of lessons is so important? Oftsed tend to rate the average attainment of schools’ examination performance; if instead the focus is placed on individual performance, student by student, it turns out that lesson quality (as rated by Ofsted) is having little effect.


Of course, all Plomin is measuring here is outcome of grades. He is not measuring the degree to which the lessons are inspiring the children to love learning. A child could leave school with straight A stars and never wish to engage in formal education again. Plomin’s point, nevertheless, remains significant regarding heritability and educational achievement: it is not schools which make the difference.


Under Tony Blair’s New Labour the idea that good teachers can make a difference to outcome became particularly prominent. League tables, originally devised by the Conservative Party in 1992, started to put greater pressure on schools to achieve grade targets. It was grounded in New Labour’s thinking that schools had the opportunity to stretch all children and eradicate wealth as a factor in performance. Interestingly when Education Secretary, David Blunkett, announced in 2000 that poverty was no excuse for academic failure, he was possibly right, but for the wrong reasons. Poverty is no excuse for poor educational attainment, but genes are a very good excuse (or reason).


It might appear that socio-economic factors are at play when students do well at school. The logic might go something like this. Children in better schools, in better (middle class, affluent) areas, have the advantage of a kind of cultural capital which relates to wealth and boosts their grades. Plomin controversially suggests that, although a child’s privileged postcode might look like an environmental benefit, in fact it is a reflection on genetics. Where a child lives, the type of house and location, is a measure of parental income, education and intelligence. Parental intelligence is a heritable trait. Bright parents conceive bright offspring. It only appears that the leafy suburb, where the family happens to live, is a factor affecting attainment.


If this biologically determined view of children’s attainment sounds bleak, Plomin offers words of optimism. Accepting that genetic heritability explains educational attainment could actually be quite liberating. League tables have often been accused of causing stress and failing to take into account socio-economic advantage. Actually, what league tables fail to take into account is individual, genetic difference. In an education system that acknowledges the role of heritability, teachers would be freed of the burden of having to ‘add value’ and parents would be freed of the guilt that, if only they had read to their child more, then the science tests might be more successful now.


If sceptical about Plomin’s point, it is worth mentioning the extensive examples given throughout his book of concordance rates indicating the impact of genes on behaviour. Intelligence, educational achievement and grades are not the only focus; Plomin discusses the evidence that mental illness is also heritable, which once again might relieve the burden of responsibility from the shoulders of parents if it turns out that mental illness in children is unlikely to have been caused by ‘naughty step usage’ in the early years. The less palatable side of Plomin’s work (for many) is that it gives a cursory nod to the re-introduction of Grammar Schools. Somehow, the contribution of genes to educational attainment needs to find a way of helping the individual, not isolating him or her from opportunity.


Blueprint by Robert Plomin is publishes by Allen Lane