Cummings is Coming! – Genetics in Education
During the last few weeks, there has been a ripple in the fabric of the
education and parenting universe. It has been caused by two
things; a forthcoming book written by Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin – ‘G is for Genes’; and a ‘private’ paper written by Dominic
Cummings, Michael Gove’s erstwhile mentor and senior policy consultant. If you felt it, when watching
`TV or reading the papers, you
may have seen this ripple announced as ‘a leak’ or ‘breaking news’, indicating that in the future we may see schools where children’s
genome will define their educational programme.
Whether Dominic Cummings’ paper was written in response to, after listening to, or entirely separately
following a visit to the DFE by
Robert Plomin to explain his research on the gap in results in GCSE, we will
probably never know. However, the question still remains -
Is this eugenics by the back door (survival of the fittest and improvement of
the human race by enabling the most able to succeed)? Or
is it a sensible and sensitive suggestion for differentiating school provision
by using each child’s genetic profile to ensure that they get
the best-matched provision possible (changing how we educate children by paying
much more attention to individual differences in their
We all know that parents with high intelligence themselves, an interest in ideas
and in problem solving, who read books and talk to their
children, will produce children who are like them, likely to do better at school
and in life. It’s not the books that make the children better,
it’s the genes!
When children are born into families where money is scarce, parents have had
less successful education themselves, nutrition is poor,
TV is purely entertainment, and value for schools and learning is low, they will
not do as well.
What a surprise!!
What Plomin’s research on about 6,500 pairs of twins born in England and Wales appears to
tell us is that at the age of 16, more than
50% of the difference between the top and bottom results in GCSE is down to
heredity, the genes children received when they were
conceived. Plomin also says that environmental influences from home and school
make around 30% of the difference. Should we be
surprised at this? Should we all give up teaching? I think not!
We all know that children whose parents are interested in them, whose mothers
have had a good education themselves, and
particularly those who have high aspirations for their children will do better.
We know this almost from the moment the child walks
through the door of our classroom or setting. We also know which children will
be slower to learn, will struggle to concentrate. These
children will not have had the benefit of a good diet or enough sleep, have no
books at home, not enough talk, too much screen time,
and probably parents who did not do well at school themselves. Again it’s not the lack of books that is the problem!
So - should we listen to the suggestions that children should be schooled
according to their ‘genetic potential’? When I met the
shortlisted candidates for deputy headship of the school where I was head, one
said, “The children here are so small. They are much
smaller than the kids in my present school. Why are they so small?” I could answer that in several ways. “It may be because almost all
the children in this school come from families living on benefit; or because
most of the mothers smoke, and many drink heavily, even
during pregnancy; or because there are no shops on the estate because they are
always ransacked; or because a large proportion of
children are raised by lone parents; or because the only meal many of them have
during the day is a free school meal; or because the
only reason for anyone in the family to get up is to bring them to school.” Or I could say, “It’s just all in their genes, poor parents produce
poor children, and there’s nothing we can do to change it.” What I did say was that we took each child as an individual and looked past
this inheritance of poverty into a better future.
Robert Plomin and Dominic Cummings both say that we should look carefully at the
‘in-school’ factors that affect attainment, and of
these, children’s genetic makeup may account for up to 70% of the difference between the highest
exam or test score and the lowest in
any school, whether this is from the phonics screening or reading tests at 7 or
I agree! And for many years, the teaching profession has been pleading for a
method that takes into account the local circumstances
within a school that affect overall attainment levels.
What we all need to remember is that we have always tried to make the difference
within the other 30% of potential, so every child can
become the best they can be. We all do this by using a massive toolbox of
techniques, including individual support, differentiated tasks,
different teaching and learning styles, working closely with parents, involving
outside agencies, and above all, telling every child every
day that they matter to us and we believe in them, whatever their genetic
makeup. I am convinced that there are hundreds and
thousands of adults alive today who would not be doing what they are doing today
if it wasn’t for a dedicated teacher or other adult who
looked for the 30% and never let genetics get in the way of giving a child the
chance to excel in something that their genetic profile
might never suggest as suitable for them.
So what would a ‘gene school’ (not a gene pool) look like? It seemed from the newspaper articles that every
decision on provision
would be made through a combination of regular tests and genetic screening,
implying that there would be no room for the human
element, the bit that makes teachers different from teaching machines. So I
returned to the original document written by Robert Plomin.
He says something different:
Rather than a passive model of schooling as instruction (instruere, ‘to build in’), we propose an active
model of education (educare, ‘to bring out’) in which children create their own educational experiences in part on the
basis of their
genetic propensities, which supports the trend towards personalized learning.
Such schools would engage in ‘active genotype-environment correlation’ that occurs when ‘… children select, modify, and construct or
re-construct experiences that are correlated with their genetic propensities.
For example, children who like to read can cultivate their
own reading in the library, on the internet, and via friends.’
He also suggests in one of the many interviews he has recently given, that there
is less genetic influence in appetite than in aptitude
implying that the ‘will’ may be just as important as the ‘skill’. That a thirst for knowledge may be genetically manufactured, but without
the appetite for it, the child may not be able to make best use of the genetic
Is this not where the skilled teacher comes in? Is this not what I see and hear
many teachers are trying to do, to follow the interests and
aptitudes of the children in their class at the moment, not planning a programme
without reference to these. If schools could be allowed
to modify the curriculum to fit the child, rather than the current fever to make
the child fit the curriculum, we may have a hope of
‘genetically modifying’ schools to meet the needs of children.
In his paper; ‘Genetic influence on educational achievement’, Robert Plomin and his co-researchers conclude with the following: ‘In
closing, we note that accepting the evidence for strong genetic influence on
individual differences in educational achievement
has no necessary implications for educational policy, because policy depends on
values as well as knowledge. For example, a
deep-seated fear is that accepting the importance of genetics justifies
inequities – educating the best and forgetting the rest.
However, depending on one’s values, the opposite position could be taken, such as putting more educational
resources into the
lower end of the distribution to guarantee that all children reach minimal
standards of literacy and numeracy, so that they are not
excluded from our increasingly technological societies. It is to be hoped that
better policy decisions will be made with knowledge
than without. Part of that knowledge is the strong genetic contribution to
individual differences in educational achievement.’
However, the present climate in education policy in this country does not
inspire my confidence!
Sally Featherstone – 1 November 2013
If you want to read the original articles on which this piece is based, you can
find them at: