Archive | October, 2013

Poor people do not have rubbish genes

16 Oct

Image by JFantasy, via Wikimedia commons

If you struggled at school, or just missed out on the socially acceptable number of GCSE grades, a senior advisor in the Department for Education may have worked out where everything went wrong. The short answer? You’ve got rubbish genes.

The long answer is a little more complicated. Dominic Cummings, a senior advisor to Secretary of Education Michael Gove, has produced a report which seems to set out his own personal vision for our education system – and it slots in nicely somewhere between scary and alarming. In a thesis that dismisses the current education system as mediocre, Mr Cummings explains in the course of 250 pages that the Department of Education should really only employ a fraction of the staff it does. The advisor’s preferred alternative seems to be a market in education (because transforming a public good into a market is how we ended up with world famous low energy bills).

Bizarrely, the advisor also claims that ‘the largest factor’ affecting a child’s performance has been shown to be genetics. To back up this claim Mr Cummings lists a number of key statistics showing the ‘heritability’ of test performance between parents and children, which seem to show a correlation. I would point out to Mr Cummings that he may have mistaken correlation for causation, but then that might be my own bargain bucket genes getting the best of me.

Do Mr Cummings’ claims match up with other statistics on education performance? Research by the Education and Social Research Council shows 21% of the poorest fifth of school children leave secondary education with at least five good GCSEs. The equivalent figure for the wealthiest fifth is 75%. From Cummings’ position, isn’t the only conclusion we can draw that poor children do worse than wealthy children because they are genetically less intelligent?

Are we to presume that proximity to hard cash has a positive impact on genetics? Are poor children likely to struggle more at school because they come from a genetic line of other poor people? Or is the answer, far more obviously, that wealth is a strong social factor in how well a child is likely to do at school and beyond? This thesis has the stench of genetic destiny to it, and feels almost Victorian in its belief in the importance of biological factors to intelligence and life chances.

In a retort to the thesis, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee spoke to geneticist Professor Steve Jones about Cummings’ thesis. The answer she received was that ‘success and failure depend far more on the economic than the genetic accidents of birth’. Well that’s a surprise – life chances are affected by wealth and influence. Who knew?

But as Mr Cummings (who is not a trained geneticist) insists ‘Most of those that now dominate discussions on social mobility entirely ignore genetics and therefore their arguments are at best misleading and often worthless’. Who are we to believe? Should it be the trained professor of genetics or a political advisor accused of using ‘obscene and intimidating language’?

In an article for the Telegraph Professor Jones sets out why environment is a far more important factor than genetics, seemingly putting to rest any chance of Mr Cummings’ thesis becoming government policy. But of course Dominic Cummings has been an advisor to Michael Gove since 2011 and is a member of the education secretary’s inner circle. His hands have been all over education policy for two years.

The UK is one of the worst countries in the developed world for social mobility, scoring only half as well as both Canada and Australia in a recent study. This is a social problem, not a problem of DNA and chromosomes. Arguments like those of Mr Cummings, which claim genetic destiny disproves the need educators to consider social and economic problems when teaching children, are not only unhelpful but callous. Let’s hope this report finds its way to the back of a government filing cabinet never to be seen again.

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