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.