Tag Archives: Michael Gove

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.


Are academies worth the money?

1 Dec

Photo by Cherice, via Flickr

By Chris Hansell

£1 billion is a lot of money. It is past the point for most people to successfully visualise, it’s meaning lost in a cacophony of noughts. As it happens it is also the amount of money the Ministry of Education overspent on their flagship academies programme between 2010 and 2012.

I’ve written about academies before and have my reservations about their benefits. I even discussed it in a light-hearted debate with some of my colleagues.

But my concerns with the policy never anticipated this kind of money mismanagement. With the Guardian reporting an additional £767 million of extra spending up to April 2013 these costs don’t seem to be lowering soon.

The problem is this: academies are not better than state comprehensive schools. In many ways they are more or less the same in terms of pupil achievement. What could warrant so much extra money when it is not leaving pupils with a sounder education?

Some academies have boosted pupil numbers leaving with five GCSEs at grades A to C by 8%. But as Henry Stewart and Melissa Benn of the Local Schools Network point out this figure only represents academies that score below 35% ‘benchmark’. They also reveal that ‘results at non academies below the benchmark also grew by 8%.’

Another key piece of evidence used in support of the academies programme is a piece of research produced by two academics at the London School of Economics. The research found that poorly performing schools turned into academies under the New Labour government improved more over time than similar schools which had not yet converted.

These findings were exploited by the media to such a degree that one of its authors was compelled to write in the Guardian to clarify his work. The academic, Stephen Machin, said ‘our evidence on Labour academies has frequently been marshalled in support of the new academies programme’ but not often with the fact that ‘new academies are rather different.’

In order to cover the overspending the Department for Education has taken money from elsewhere in its own budget. The Independent reports £95 million was taken from a ‘school improvement programme aimed at raising standards’. And this is just one example. Not only is the government overspending on a project that does not seem to improve education, but it is taking money away from other projects that might.

In a recession where we are being asked to grit our teeth and stomach cuts to all sorts of public services shouldn’t our government be more careful about where it puts such a large amount of money?

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