Genetics and the egalitarian concept of education

Science has an unparalleled ability to challenge our understanding of the world, even if often we are inclined to leave the challenge unmet. Recent evidence that variations in GCSE performance are partly explained by genes provides a fascinating example. To most scientists, particularly those with some background in genetics, this finding is hardly surprising; after all, almost any difference (e.g. height, weight) between individuals is usually rooted to some degree in genetic variations. As the authors of the study point out, if children receive the same ‘one-size-fits-all’ education then you would expect variations to primarily depend on genetic differences. For many of those involved in education, including both practitioners and policy-makers, the evidence makes for uncomfortable reading. The idea of something immutable to some extent determining outcomes is antithetical to the popular view of education as the realm of unbounded opportunity. This explains why many are quick to dismiss it as unreliable or characterise it as an off-shoot of eugenics, even if they are insufficiently versed in the nuances of genetic research to make these charges stick.

The reporting of these findings both reflects and entrenches the confusion over what they mean. In some cases the conclusions are crudely reduced to ‘genes matter more than teaching for exam performance’. This misses the crucial point that what the research is investigating is the degree to which variations in performance can be explained by different factors. This is very different from commenting on the relative contributions of these factors to overall performance. If teaching was uniformly excellent or abysmal then the contribution of genetics to variations would be even greater, but this would not in any way diminish the importance of teaching. What the research does provide is a snapshot of the diversity of educational experiences, captured as a sub-set of the 36% of variations attributed to environmental factors.

What does this research mean for the egalitarian concept of education? There are those who have been quick to use it to pronounce various fashionable ‘leftist’ projects as misguided. In his now infamous thesis on education Dominic Cummings, until this month an adviser to Michael Gove, argues that most arguments about social mobility ‘are at best misleading and often worthless’ because they ignore genetics. The heritability of exam performance also has potential implications for attempts to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor. Mary Wakefield summarises the problem neatly:

Crucially, I suppose, what educationalists of a leftish bent must consider is this: if IQ is measurable (it is) and highly heritable (that, too), then the diversity we see now in exam results isn’t going to melt away. In fact, in the best school, with excellent teachers and rigorous exams, a normal, randomly selected bunch of kids will see a greater spread of results, reflecting their inherited abilities. The little Plomins, rich and poor, will pull away. The other kids’ results will get better too, but the gap will grow.

This gives those who are quite happy with the current distribution of exam results – where the wealthy clearly outperform the poor – a convenient rationalisation for the discrepancy: it is all about the genes. As someone who believes in both trying to improve social mobility through education and in closing the gap between rich and poor I’m reluctant to abandon these projects. Nor do I think that the evidence requires me to do any such thing. Firstly, the scope of the genetic explanation is limited. It is worth reiterating an equally important finding from the research, namely that ‘differences between schools account for about a third of the variance in educational achievement’. These environmental factors are something that we can change, even if doing so is far from easy. Before we engage in a collective handwringing over what to do about the influence of genes we should be doing everything we can do to address the influence of the factors that are not beyond our control.

Secondly, anyone truly concerned with social justice in education should be unwilling to treat genetics as a trump card which renders the quest for equality futile. In fact, there is no principled reason to treat variations attributable to genes any differently to variations attributable to social background. Both are, to borrow the Rawlsian phrase, arbitrary from a moral point of view. Fortunately we don’t currently subscribe to the view that the primary role of schools is to educate all children exactly equally. It is commonplace for schools to attempt to compensate for the unequal starting points of their students. The degree to which they succeed varies, but the important point is that they see the influence of these factors as something to be eradicated rather than replicated. Our attitude toward the influence of genes should be the same. Having your chances of educational success determined by who your parents are and where you come from – whether because of environmental or genetic factors (a distinction which is no way morally relevant) – is a grave injustice.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What we learnt from Ofsted’s annual report and Wilshaw’s speech

Today Ofsted published its annual report on the state of the education system which was accompanied by a speech on the same subject by Michael Wilshaw. The main themes were hardly a surprise. It largely marked a reiteration and development of much of what Ofsted and Wilshaw have been trying to draw attention to for the last two years. Nonetheless, several things stand out.

1. There are some grounds for optimism, but we are starting from a low base

On the whole England’s schools are improving, or at least they’re improving if you accept the validity of Ofsted judgements as an indication of school quality (I’m something of an agnostic on this point). As the report puts it, ‘children in England now have the best chance they have ever had of attending a good school’. The number of schools rated good or outstanding is now 78%, up from 70% last year.

Despite this Wilshaw thinks that we still have a very long way to go. It is clear from his speech that he thinks this improvement should be seen in the context of a system in which mediocrity had become the norm. He is not yet convinced that this has significantly changed, even if we are starting to head in the right direction. As he bluntly explains his ‘report this year seeks to explain why we are still mediocre, but also why there are significant grounds for optimism’. The order in which he puts those two points is, I think, significant – in his eyes the mediocrity of our schools continues to be a much bigger story than recent improvements. This is good news for those newspaper editors ready with a damning headline.

2. An immodest narrative of improvement

What explanation is given for the fact that more schools than ever are being designated as good by Ofsted? Apparently it is the result of changes made to the inspection regime itself. According to Wilshaw:

There is no question that the system has responded positively to the tougher frameworks we introduced in September last year. The abolition of the word ‘satisfactory’ from the Ofsted lexicon and the introduction of the ‘requires improvement’ grade have had a galvanising effect. Coasting schools now know that mediocre standards will no longer be tolerated.

I’m somewhat dubious about this. Without any evidence that schools previously deemed satisfactory were under less pressure to improve I’m not inclined to accept this explanation over one that is equally plausible; namely that the introduction of the new name has resulted in inspectors being more reluctant to designate borderline schools as ‘requires improvement’, leading to an increase in the number of schools placed in the ‘good’ category instead

3. Regional variations are getting increased attention but the solutions are still vague

Unsurprisingly the report identifies ‘pockets of weak educational provision in parts of the country’ as one of the three key barriers to raising standards further. It rightly draws attention to under-performing areas, particularly the 13 local authorities where less than 50% of schools are good or outstanding (the Isle of Wight gets a particularly tough time).

 As seems to be inevitable whenever such under-performance is talked about London is held up as an example of educational excellence. In his speech Wilshaw notes that education in London was once seen as ‘uniquely awful’. He then gives a list of reasons why the quality of education in London has improved dramatically. These types of lists are something of a forte for Ofsted. The inclusion of ‘determined leadership’ and ‘persistence’ are indicative of the kind of vague truisms that are regularly included, resulting in lists that look less like a set of clear reasons why improvement has occurred than a set of incredibly loose characteristics of a good system.

4. Wilshaw cares little for the distinction between ends and means (or inspector and improver)

It is not impossible to imagine a situation in which a Chief Inspector is content to report on what the state of our schools is and leave it to others to decide from a range of options what the best way forward is. This is far removed from the current situation. Perhaps exploiting the inherent messiness of such a distinction Wilshaw is more than happy to tell schools exactly what they need to do to get better. As a consequence, both his speech and the report are to different degrees infused with soaring rhetoric about what makes a good school. This is accompanied by a sneering disapproval of those who would have it any other way.

To take just one example, he thinks that it is vital that children’s progress and outcomes are benchmarked at regular intervals in their school career. Few would disagree with this statement. However, he argues that the best way to achieve it is to reintroduce formal testing at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 3 and claims that ‘any good headteacher’ will agree that getting rid of such testing was a mistake. He goes on to suggest that abolishing those tests ‘conceded too much ground to vested interests’. The idea that there could be legitimate grounds for not having such tests whilst still endorsing the need to measure progress is not even contemplated. In Wilshaw’s world pluralism is associated with weakness and excuse-making.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

School curriculum and subject choice: the new battleground for social mobility

One of the key features of our education system is that at certain points it gives students a choice about what they study. Perhaps the most obvious example is in post-16 education where they get to pick between studying A-levels or a more vocational alternative such as BTEC’s. Similar choices also exist at GCSE level. These choices have important consequences for the student’s future: taking some qualifications shuts off options that would have been available to them had they studied something else. It would be worrying, therefore, if these choices were determined not just by academic ability or personal preference but by social background. Unfortunately the evidence suggests that this is exactly what happens. Controlling for prior academic attainment, one study found that the probability of someone from a high socio-economic background studying academic subject’s post-16 was 79% compared to a 31% chance for those from low socio-economic backgrounds. The author of the study concluded that this provided evidence for what is snappily titled the ‘effectively maintained inequality hypothesis’ which is basically the idea that the well-off maintain their advantage within the education system by picking high-status options whenever they are confronted with a choice.

The consequences of this discrepancy are stark and suggest that such a strategy is effective. One recent study sought to examine the long-term influence of curriculum differences on social mobility. The conclusions deserve to be cited in full.

Firstly, curriculum differences reproduce social inequalities and affect individuals’ chances of social (im)mobility. Secondly, among the school factors, the content taught counts more in the reproduction of social inequalities than the structure of the school system. This casts doubts on the centrality of the debate on ‘comprehensive schools versus grammar schools’ and it supports the need to focus the discussion on curricular content and inclusive methods of teaching this content. Thirdly, studying core subjects such as languages, English, mathematics and science is important for individuals’ long-term occupational opportunities.

What makes this particularly disturbing is that generally we don’t tend to think of subject choice as a social mobility issue. School type, teaching quality and even ‘cultural capital’ are frequently given prominence in discussions about social mobility, but subject choice has largely been ignored (although it has become increasingly relevant in debates about university access). The evidence mentioned above indicates that this is an unfortunate omission. Fortunately there are some indications that education policy is moving in the right direction. The introduction of the EBacc combined with changes to the accountability framework will provide strong incentives for schools to encourage students to study more academic subjects (including languages) at GCSE. Requiring students to carry on with English and maths post-16 if they fail to meet a minimum standard at GCSE is also a positive development, ensuring that those pursuing vocational qualifications will have reached a certain level in the core academic subjects by the time they leave school

One of the depressing things about these changes has been the reaction of much of the political left. Rather than welcoming the focus on core academic subjects the default response has been to castigate the changes as promoting a narrow-minded and outdated vision of education. According to these critics, the split between academic and vocational education is something to be welcomed, not eliminated. The idea that students should be encouraged to study subjects that they don’t like and find difficult is considered repugnant. Some of these attitudes arguably underpin the position of the Labour Party which has consistently argued for developing and the vocational route. However, whilst his might seem like comfortably progressive territory it really isn’t. Such thinking is guilty of ignoring the context in which choices are made within education. In an egalitarian educational utopia a ‘gold standard’ vocational education would be possible and could lead to lucrative opportunities. But in a system in which an unequal start is a given such choices all too easily cement underlying inequality, as the evidence above clearly shows. Nearly a hundred years ago John Dewey – one of the founding fathers of progressive education – expressed concern that vocational education might make education ‘an instrument of perpetuating unchanged the existing industrial order of society, instead of operating as a means of its transformation’. Looking at the education system today it is difficult to avoid feeling that his concern was justified.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Taking the politics out of education policy (or not)

It is a universal law that the longer any debate about education policy goes on the more likely it is that someone will be accused of having political or – even worse – ‘ideological’ motives. Teachers, parents and even politicians are all prone to suggesting that things would be much better if we took the politics out of education. According to this line of reasoning education is an enterprise that would be far more successful if it were left well alone by interfering governments and meddling politicians. From this point of view the politician who steps into the education policy-arena is viewed in the same way as the urban fox: perfectly acceptable in its natural environment but a nuisance when it ends up where it doesn’t belong and starts rummaging through the bins.

Taken at face value the claim that education should be spared from politics is absurd. Like all areas of public policy education inevitably involves value judgments. As a result, to refer to a particular position as political or ideological is truistic. The suggestion that we should just let teachers teach or that we should focus on what works (both popular convictions) are no less ideological positions than the argument that we should reintroduce the 11-plus. Moreover, there is a strong principled argument for retaining political control of education. In a democratic society the ultimate arbiters of what gets taught and how should be those who are accountable at the ballot-box. Finally, politicians themselves have strong practical reasons for interfering in education; the public care about what happens in our schools, and they expect politicians to at least attempt to exert some control over it.

In the end it is neither possible nor desirable to separate politics from education. Those who continue to advocate doing so are either naïve in that they genuinely believe that such separation is possible or dangerous in that they are seeking to suppress and exclude views that conflict with their own by labelling them as politically motivated.  Nonetheless, there are some important ways in which politics and political considerations do get in the way of effective education policy, and it is this that accounts for the enduring appeal of the plea for separation.

One obvious way in which politics makes effective policy less likely occurs is through the electoral cycle. Governments, generally speaking, have short life-spans. Good education policy requires time for careful planning, rigorous evaluation and considered implementation. As a result there is a direct conflict between the relentless desire of governments to always be seen to be doing something and the demands of effective policy. Another important consequence of this short-termism is that it prevents ministers from developing genuine expertise in their policy area. In the ten years prior to Gove’s appointment in 2010 there were six different holders of the position of Secretary of State for Education. In such a short time it would be unreasonable to expect even the best and brightest – let alone government ministers – to develop anything that can fairly be called expertise in the area of education.

Another way that politics undermines the quest for good education policy is through the elevation of presentation above effectiveness. For understandable reasons governments tend to focus more on how something looks than what it actually does. All too often this leads to policies that are confused or even completely ineffective. The pupil premium provides a good example of the former. The idea that schools should get extra money for pupils on free school meals is entirely sensible. So sensible in fact that it has been in place for years. Under the complex funding formula used to determine school budgets schools already receive a significant premium (estimated at £4,000 by the NFER) for pupils on free school meals. Rather than increase that funding or introduce guidance as to how it should be spent the coalition government instead opted to introduce an extra premium (now about £900), presumably so they could be seen to be doing something about the attainment gap and pretend that what they were doing was somehow innovative. The slightly bizarre result is that schools are now expected to ring-fence a small portion (about a fifth) of the total amount they receive for pupils on free school meals and demonstrate to Ofsted how they are using that portion alone to narrow the attainment gap within the school. The question of whether this is really an effective way of narrowing the gap is obscured by a screen of self-congratulation about how progressive the ‘new’ measure is.

Whilst some of these problems are inevitable, there are things that could be done to make the political system more conducive to thoughtful education policy. First, we should promote bi-partisanship in key areas. The only way to overcome the problem of short-termism is to work towards a general acceptance that some policy changes should require at least an element of political consensus. Changes to the national curriculum and qualification reform in particular would benefit from being exempted from the relentless desire to change things. In an ideal world changes to either would be made on a bi-partisan basis (and with genuine consultation) to ensure a certain level of continuity. This might be unlikely in the current political climate but it doesn’t need to be – there could be important roles for a select committee or even an independent commission in making this happen. Once an initial precedent has been sent that such change should be bi-partisan it will be difficult to revert back to partisan short-termism.

Second, if we assume that politicians are not going to be bringing the policy expertise to the table then we need to look elsewhere. Theoretically the civil service should be filling this gap. However, in reality the civil service incentivises genuine expertise little better than political parties. The model civil servant – a highly-educated generalist with little experience beyond the corridors of power – is strikingly similar to the model politician. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that ministers feel comfortable relying on bright young SPAD’s for policy advice when the alternative offers little different. More senior posts within the DfE should go to those who have a strong background in education, and junior civil servants should be encouraged to specialise rather than develop shallow knowledge across a range of policy areas.

Rather than implausibly suggesting that education would be better if we somehow cleansed it of the pernicious influence of politics we should instead be honest about the impact of our political system on policy making. By recognising the tensions between effective policy and good politics we can start to unpick where things go wrong. If we can do this we might be able to reach a position in which the fact that education is inherently political is seen as a positive. For now describing something as ‘political’ will likely remain a term of abuse.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Educational underachievement of the white working class – Part 3: What are the solutions?

Given the lack of clarity surrounding the causes of white working class underachievement it is hard to be anywhere near precise about what the solutions might be. In many ways the fact that the issue is now getting attention could be seen as a first step in the right direction: influential people are talking about it and so there is at least some level of recognition from those who matter.

Exactly what they’d do about it, however, is slightly less clear. On occasion the suggestions have been downright unhelpful. When David Willetts suggested that white working class boys should be treated ‘like an ethnic minority’ for the purposes of university admissions he displayed both an eye for a headline and an ignorance of how university admissions actually work. Recent comments from Tim Leunig (an adviser at the DfE) fall into the same category. He drew attention to the issue by suggesting that being white has become the real ‘problem’ in schools. But attributing a level of institutional discrimination to the education system because of the outcomes that it produces denigrates schools without getting us any nearer to solving the problem.

Even some of the well-intentioned suggestions about what should be done from the academic community have been rather vague. Some have attempted to learn from schools where white underachievement appears not to be an issue. The recommendations produced are not dissimilar to those that you’d come up with if you were listing fluffy criteria for what it means to be a good school – ‘strong and inspirational leadership’, ‘high expectations for all pupils’ and ‘effective use of data and rigorous monitoring systems’. In other words, they generally fail to get to into the specifics of addressing underachievement by white working class pupils in particular.

At the other end of the spectrum entirely some have argued that we shouldn’t focus on white working class underachievement at all. According to this line of reasoning the biggest factor determining attainment is wealth and by focussing on one particular ethnic group we are legitimising the attainment gap between those in poverty and the well-off. This is essentially the position taken by some of the contributors to a pamphlet published by the Runnymede Trust on the white working class. As one of them puts it, ‘the contemporary preoccupation with white working class male underachievement…institutes a policy of divide and rule that pits one educational disadvantaged group against another’. Whilst I understand this concern I cannot follow it to the conclusion that we should not address the ethnic dimension to underachievement. If we make the effort it must be possible to be concerned with both the correlation between wealth and attainment and the underachievement of a particular ethnic group. We can try to intelligently address both without necessarily falling prey to a neo-liberal conspiracy.

Having bemoaned the lack of coherent solutions put forward by politicians and having dismissed the suggestion that we ignore the issue altogether, what do I think we should do to try to address the problem? The honest answer is I don’t know. In the absence of any conclusive evidence about the causes it would be foolish to make concrete policy suggestions. Two things would help though. First, we should invest time and effort into trying to get to the bottom of why pupils from white working class backgrounds do particularly badly. Too much of the research so far has – for perhaps understandable reasons – skirted around the really difficult questions. The time has come for research that does not just collapse into a familiar recital of why poverty leads to poor educational outcomes. Second, we should be clear about the particular sensitivities associated with drawing conclusions about an entire ethnic group. These are complex and difficult issues and expecting to find a single, simple explanation is not only liable to offend but it is also likely to lead to error. These sensitivities also have important consequences for the types of policy responses available. Whilst we are in a position where the allocation of extra resources to schools that serve large numbers of disadvantaged pupils (via the pupil premium) is acceptable, it would be inconceivable for those extra resources to be adjusted according to the ethnic make-up of the school.  Any potential solution to the problem would have to bear that reality in mind.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

GCSE reforms and the f word

What does it mean to fail an exam? With the final plans for changes to GCSE’s announced this week there has been plenty of discussion about academic standards and what these changes will mean for children. Given that the general perception is that the changes will make GCSE’s tougher much of the focus has been on those children who might not meet these more demanding standards. This is perfectly sensible. Running through many of these comments, however, is a belief that makes me feel uneasy, namely that raising standards inevitably involves passing judgment on student’s and consigning many of them to disappointment and failure.

Here are three examples of what I’m talking about. First up is Geoff Barton writing in the TES (my emphasis):

 What I would really welcome is an examination system that’s not predicated on how many children ‘fail’ to gain certain grades – the loathsome, divisive, all-encompassing C/D borderline that leaves so many students thinking they are rubbish.

Much more acceptable would be the notion that a grade one indicates a basic grasp of functional literacy and numeracy – an achievement not then sneered at or dismissed. At the end of eleven years of compulsory schooling, we really must develop a national mindset that recognizes young people’s achievement at the full range of levels.

Hugh Muir struck a similar note in the Guardian:

With the announcement of yet another new regime for GCSEs – a new grading system for English and Maths, the move away from modular testing, coursework, tiering and the future reliance on an O-level style eggs-in-one basket summer examination – the education secretary sets himself against second chances for 16-year-olds. He seems more interested in the tougher GCSE as a nervewracking penalty shoot out. One false move and that’s that.

And Mary Bousted from the ATL argued that:

Given that currently 40% of 16-year-olds do not pass both English and maths at A* – C, it is likely with fewer students will pass GCSEs with the proposed new numeric grading structure, as grade boundaries will be recalibrated upwards. This will demoralise students and teachers alike.

The common message is that setting expected standards that many students will not meet is equivalent to telling them that they are not good enough and destroying their future prospects (‘one false move and that’s that’). At its core is a mistaken understanding of what it means to fail in education. These criticisms all implicitly assume that failing an exam is a kind of moral failure, so that falling below a threshold is somehow a reflection of your worth as a person. This does not have to be the case at all. Exams should be nothing more than an assessment of your knowledge and understanding of a particular subject. As every teacher knows, the grades that you receive at the end of your education are unlikely to be a particularly good indication of the broader successes and failures of your time at school. This is not a problem with exams and qualifications – it simply illustrates that their purpose is not to offer value judgements but instead to provide an accurate picture of what students can and can’t do.

If what these criticisms are really trying to get at is that in our culture and attitudes to education we attribute a wider significance than we should to failing an exam then they should make the case in those terms. By bundling the issues together they create an environment in which raising standards is inevitably associated with a whole host of negative consequences. This is incredibly damaging. We should be able to be ambitious about what children are expected to learn at school without adopting a pernicious conception of failure. In a world class education system children should be able to fail exams without being made to feel worthless.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Educational underachievement of the white working class – Part 2: What do we know about the causes?

The pattern of underachievement I highlighted in my last post is relatively easy to observe – it is illustrated clearly by hard data collected by schools and the DfE. The causes of that underachievement are, by contrast, more difficult to pinpoint. In part this reflects the complexity of the problem. Explaining the academic performance of a considerable section of the school population is difficult and carries the inevitable risk of crude generalisation. It also reflects the fact that relatively little research has gone into the subject; most of the research looks at why student on free school meals do worse than their more affluent peers, as opposed to why a particular ethnic group fares particularly badly within the FSM category. (Even the literature that purports to address this question often just highlights the particular underperformance of the white working class and then tries to explain why poverty generally is associated with underperformance.)

When the issue has attracted political attention the explanations put forward have been equally vague and imprecise. In an interview last year Michael Wilshaw referred to a ‘culture which is often anti-school and anti-learning’.  Perhaps intentionally it was not clear whether he was suggesting that this anti-school culture was particularly strong in poor white communities. Whether or not he was suggesting this, it is certainly fair to say that some people do think that white working class underachievement is partly caused by parental attitudes to education and this is often contrasted with the more positive attitude to education displayed by first and second generation immigrant families. The problem with this popular explanation is twofold. First, it does not seem to have a solid evidence base. As far as I am aware there is no actual evidence that white working class kids have a more negative attitude towards education. Second and even more importantly, even if it was established it would just beg the question why they have a more negative attitude towards education.

In short, we seem to know relatively little about why white FSM pupils do particularly badly. In the spirit of being constructive if I was asked to speculate on the causes I would consider the following questions:

  1. What does the more sophisticated data on deprivation tell us about white underperformance? FSM is a notoriously crude indicator of poverty. More fine-grained data on poverty and educational attainment may well present a more nuanced picture. For example, it could be that in some ways white pupils on FSM are more disadvantaged as a group than FSM pupils from other ethnic groups.
  2. Is there a geographical dimension to this problem? Regional inequality in the education system is becoming increasingly well-documented, and although this is often dismissed as an explanation because white-FSM pupils in London (by far the highest performing area) still do badly I think there could well be something in it. Are there specific characteristics of predominantly white working class areas (high unemployment, geographical isolation etc.) that contribute to underachievement?
  3. How do perceptions of social mobility fit within this picture? Could it be, for instance, that the actual experience of low-levels of inter-generational mobility is contributing to the problem?
Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments