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Toby Young
Friday 3rd November 2017

Why all children should be exposed to the best that's been thought and said


I read with interest Dr Kathryn Asbury’s excellent contribution to the debate about the influence of genetically-based individual differences on educational attainment. Her article was, in part, a response to a blog post by me on the subject, as well as a response by Professor Sonia Blandford, which briefly appeared on the Teach First website before being taken down. I have reposted the two blogs on my website – mine is here, Professor Blandford’s is here – and you can read an article about the whole imbroglio on Quillette here.

As that article points out, my post accurately summarised mainstream scientific research in this area but it is worth highlighting that not everyone accepts the findings of psychologists and behavioural geneticists. One of the claims I made is that there is little robust evidence that schools can raise the general cognitive ability of individual students – which is not to say it is impossible, only that we have not yet discovered how to do it. But the fact that schools have not yet found a reliable way of closing the attainment gaps linked to genetically-based individual differences does not mean they cannot shift the entire bell curve to the right, and many schools do. That is, good schools can raise the mean even if they cannot close those gaps. But I should have added that many eminent social scientists believe that some experimental interventions have successfully raised children’s IQs. For a summary of the evidence, see this article by Richard E Nisbett, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Dr Asbury and I broadly agree on what the science tells us about the relative impact of nature and nurture, but I part company with her when she links this to an argument for more flexible targets within our education system and a greater plurality of goals. The fact that half the population of schoolchildren have below average IQs, and that fact that IQ is linked to academic attainment, does not mean that only the top half should be entered for the English Baccalaureate. Expecting 90 per cent of children to achieve level 5 or above in the seven EBacc GCSEs may be unrealistic, but there are good reasons for thinking that entering that number is the best way of maximising the percentage of children who obtain it. And the exam results of children in the world’s highest-performing education regions – Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai – suggest that significantly more than half of our schoolchildren should be able to meet that target. (To read more, click here.)

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