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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Wednesday 22nd November 2017

What on earth was Paperchase thinking?

Last Saturday, the high-street chain Paperchase ran a promotion in the Daily Mail offering two free rolls of wrapping paper. Nothing objectionable about that, you might think, even if the design was migraine-inducingly awful. I have lost count of the number of times I have been dragged into this ghastly emporium by my daughter on a weekend in pursuit of some overpriced piece of tat. Not recommended if you are nursing a hangover.

Later that day, the left-wing lobby group Stop Funding Hate launched a fusillade against Paperchase on Twitter for having the temerity to advertise in Britain’s second-best-selling daily newspaper. ‘Is a Daily Mail promotion what customers want to see from @FromPaperchase?’ it asked. The answer was presumably ‘no’ because Stop Funding Hate’s reason for existence is to bully large retailers into withdrawing their ads from right-of-centre tabloid newspapers in the hope of destroying our free press. (To read more, click here.)

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Thursday 16th November 2017

New report by research institute finds lots of positive things to say about free schools

I enjoyed Jon Andrew’s blog post about his report for the Education Policy Institute (EPI) on free schools – and agree with his recommendation that more of them are needed in areas of entrenched underperformance. But I thought the spin on the report was slightly misleading.

The headline claims free schools "aren’t attracting a significant number of disadvantaged pupils" and Jon says there is a risk they will "encourage an increase in social segregation in our schools".

But this claim rests on just one of the findings in the report, namely, that the percentage of children on free school meals at those primary free schools set up in England’s most disadvantaged areas – defined as the bottom fifth – is lower than the percentage of children on free school meals in those areas.

What about some of the other findings? (To read more, click here.)

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Thursday 16th November 2017

It's a jungle in there, Stanley

Crikey Moses! Stanley Johnson has been cast as the token pensioner in the new series of I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! At 77, he will be 27 years older than the next oldest person in the jungle-based reality show, 50-year-old ex-footballer Dennis Wise. He cheerfully admits he has never watched the programme before, which comes as no surprise. If he had known what he was letting himself in for, would he have signed up?

I don’t just mean the routine indignities, such as chewing on turkey testicles or washing down a plate of live cockroaches with a beaker of blended emu liver. Or the discomfort of enduring a three-week camping holiday in an inhospitable environment with few mod cons and not enough food. I don’t even mean having to disrobe and bathe in front of a bevy of beautiful girls strutting around in their bikinis.

No, I’m thinking of the mental challenges, like the complete absence of intelligent conversation. (To read more, click here.)

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Tuesday 14th November 2017

Watch me defending free speech at the Battle of Ideas debate

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Thursday 9th November 2017

Another year, another tax leak – and the usual annual festival of hypocrisy

Stories about members of the establishment using offshore tax shelters — ooh er missus! — come along about once a year, thanks to the efforts of the liberal media. Cue a chorus of disapproval from Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, Margaret Hodge and other left-wing panjandrums who demand that the government ‘seize’ Britain’s overseas territories and ‘clamp down’ on tax loopholes. Then, as night follows day, it emerges on the Guido Fawkes website that a large number of these sanctimonious prigs are themselves direct beneficiaries of offshore tax arrangements — and the kerfuffle over the Paradise Papers is no different, as I will shortly make clear. It’s like an annual festival of hypocrisy.

The Guardian has been leading the charge this week, as it always does, conveniently ignoring the fact that the Scott Trust, which owns the paper, was originally set up by the Scott family to avoid paying death duties, as well as the fact that the Guardian Media Group took advantage of a murky web of tax shelters in the Caymans to avoid paying a penny on the £300 million it earned from the sale of Auto Trader in 2008. It is nothing short of miraculous that the Guardian’s reporters, when sifting through the latest cache of leaked documents, did not stumble across their own paper’s name alongside Lewis Hamilton’s and the cast of Mrs Brown’s Boys. Luckily, they did not, which allowed the paper’s head of investigations to thunder away about ‘offensive’ and ‘unfair’ tax avoidance in a tub-thumping editorial last Monday. (To read more, click here.)

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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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Thursday 2nd November 2017

Teach First has turned me into a free speech martyr

I had the unusual experience last Sunday of appearing on a panel to defend free speech having been the victim of censorship 24 hours earlier. As Claire Fox, the chair of the event, said: ‘We are lucky enough to have our very own free speech martyr on the panel.’

Martyr is putting it a bit strongly, but I was ‘no platformed’ as a result of expressing a verboten point of view. What made it quite upsetting is that the organisation responsible was Teach First, an education charity that aims to recruit top university graduates into teaching and which I have always supported. Indeed, it is because I am sympathetic to Teach First’s aims — it wants to make the school system of England and Wales fairer by deploying excellent teachers to deprived areas — that I agreed to speak at its annual conference and write a blog post for its website.

Now, it is fair to say that my blog, which was published on October 26, will not have made for comfortable reading for those who believe that schools can redress all the inequalities that are outside their control. I pointed out that the strongest single predictor of how well children do in their GCSEs is IQ, with differences in children’s general cognitive ability accounting for more than half of the variance in exam results. That’s a finding that has been replicated numerous times. I also pointed out that schools have enjoyed little success when it comes to raising the IQs of individual students, but I allowed that they may discover how to do so, particularly with the aid of new technologies. (To read more, click here.)

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Friday 27th October 2017

Why I believe Teach First was wrong to censor my views

I recently took part in a panel discussion at a Teach First conference and wrote a blog post for their website about the relative impact of nature and nurture on children's attainment. The theme of the conference was social mobility and what schools can do to boost it and my post was one of two, with an alternative point of view being given by Sonia Blandford, Dean of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University College and founder of Achievement For All. The two posts were billed as a debate and it was clear that neither point of view reflected those of Teach First.

Yesterday, Teach First decided to take both posts down and in their place published an apology for having published my piece in the first place. "It was against what we believe is true and against our values and vision," Teach First explained.

I am astonished by this decision. Surely, the fact that Teach First does not agree with my views is not a reason for removing the post, particularly as it appeared in the context of a debate and was posted alongside a rebuttal by a distinguished educationalist? If Teach First disapproved of my views so strongly, why publish the piece in the first place? They could have turned it down and I would have simply published it elsewhere. But to publish it and then un-publish it smacks of censorship. Why they felt a need to apologise for having temporarily published it is a mystery.

I am disappointed by this reaction, to put it mildly, not least because I share Teach First's values and vision. In my blog post, I attempted to show how educationalists could remain committed to raising standards for all children, particularly the most disadvantaged, without denying the mainstream scientific understanding about the heritability of IQ and the impact of IQ on educational outcomes. Teach First's reaction and its branding of my piece as "against what we believe is true" suggests they don't share my belief that its values are compatible with mainstream science. That is an unwise position for any educational organisation to take, particularly one that prides itself on being guided by scientific evidence.

I intend to write at more length about this episode for the Spectator. In the meantime, you can read my original piece here and Sonia Blandford's piece here.

A couple of further points. I took a good deal of trouble to summarise the science accurately in my piece. I discussed it with two leading academics in the field before writing it and subsequently showed it to two more after I'd written a first draft. They suggested some small amendments to my summary of the science and I incorporated them into the final version. The science may be against what Teach First believes to be true – and no doubt what many educationalists would like to be true – but that doesn't make it untrue. Having said that, there are some eminent social scientists who believe it is possible to raise children's IQ, something I claim in my piece hasn't yet been achieved, at least not in a way that is easily replicable. A good summary of the alternative viewpoint, and the evidence to support is, is provided by Richard E Nesbitt here. This series of posts by David Didau is a good introduction to the whole topic.

I am fascinated by this subject and if there is one thing I regret about my piece it is not being clearer about the fact that our scientific understanding of what schools can and cannot achieve is not settled and, like a lot of science, is in a state of constant development. So if anyone would like to contribute to this debate, please send me your responses and if they are suitably well-informed I will publish them here.

UPDATE: Quillette has published a piece about the whole affair here.

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Thursday 26th October 2017

Why I don't like reading to my kids at bedtime

All surveys carried out by retail businesses with a view to generating press coverage should be treated with extreme caution, but I cannot resist writing about one that has just been published by The press release is headed ‘The Decline of the Bedtime Story’ and the key finding is that 64 per cent of parents do not regularly read a bedtime story to their children. Just 10 per cent say they do, while 6 per cent say they have never done it.

Oh how I envy that 6 per cent! I am a member of the wretched 10 per cent who read to their children at night. Why wretched? Let me count the ways. (To read more, click here.)

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Friday 27th October 2017

Are there any limits to what schools can achieve?

Since setting up one of England’s first free schools in 2011, I’ve become interested in what schools can and cannot achieve. Six years ago, I shared the optimism that characterises most graduates entering the education sector for the first time and talked passionately about the transformative impact that good schools can have. But six years later I’m a little more realistic. I now like to quote the opening verse of the Serenity Prayer when talking about this subject:

God grant me the serenity/to accept the things I cannot change;/courage to change the things I can;/and the wisdom to know the difference.

So what are the things that schools cannot change? Having immersed myself in psychology, particularly psychometrics, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that it is naïve to think schools can do much to ameliorate the effects of inequality. I don’t just mean socio-economic inequality; I also mean differences in intelligence. A child’s general cognitive ability is the strongest single predictor of how well they do in their GCSEs, with differences in IQ accounting for more than half of the variance in exam results. See this 2007 study, for instance, which involved tracking 70,000 English schoolchildren over a five-year period. It’s a finding that has been replicated several times.

Can schools do anything to raise children’s general cognitive ability? The answer is maybe, but we haven’t yet discovered how to do it. Intelligence is a highly heritable characteristic, which is to say that more than half the variance in IQ at a population level is due to genetic differences, with less than half due to environmental differences. It’s true that the heritability of IQ is lower among children than it is among adults, with the environment playing a bigger role during adolescence. But the impact of the environment on children’s attainment, even during these formative years, is still fairly negligible – lower than most educationalists believe. Overall, children’s genes account for between 60 and 70 per cent of the variance in GCSE results, with IQ accounting for about half that genetic influence.

Paradoxically, schools do appear to have an effect on the [itals] mean [itals] IQ scores of large populations. As a general rule, the better a country’s public education system, the higher its average IQ. Not only that, but the political scientist James Flynn has demonstrated that the mean IQ of populations in the more affluent parts of the world has increased since 1930, an effect he partly attributes to better schooling. (For more on the Flynn Effect, see here. Interestingly, Flynn now believes IQ across the developed world has started to fall.)

But what schools cannot do, or haven’t been able to do up to now, is raise the IQs of individual students. In particular, they haven’t been able to reduce the differences in IQ among their pupils by raising the general cognitive ability of those who start out below average. A fairly common misunderstanding among educationalists is thinking that if you make schools more equal, you will equalise attainment. In fact, if every school is equally good, you may succeed in reducing some of the differences in GCSE results due to environmental differences, but by doing that you will automatically accentuate the variation due to differences in natural ability, including genetic differences when it comes to conscientiousness and other personality traits linked with attainment. Looked at this way, school improvement may actually [itals] increase [itals] inequality of school outcomes rather than reduce it.

So what can schools do? The good news is that environmental differences still account for between 30 and 40 per cent of the variance in GCSE results, and some of that is linked to the quality of the school. The bad news is that differences between schools, such as the amount of resources a school receives, the number of children in a class, the quality of the teachers, etc., account for no more than 10 per cent of the variance in exam results after you control for variables like students’ IQ and parental socio-economic status.

Now, the fact that ‘school effects’ are quite small shouldn’t be a reason to despair. Good teachers and good schools can still make a difference for key attributes like motivation, attitudes toward learning and self-confidence – see the impact of No Excuses charter schools on raising the attainment of minority students in America’s inner-cities, for instance. And I believe it’s possible – even likely – that we will eventually discover how to boost children’s IQs. By this, I don’t mean that teachers will become better at instilling a ‘Growth Mindset’ – see here for a wide-ranging discussion of the shortcomings of that approach. Rather, I mean that as our understanding of the neuro-biology of intelligence deepens, we may be able to develop pharmacological interventions that boost children’s intelligence. Smart drugs that actually make you smarter – permanently. As I say, I think that could happen, probably within the next 25-50 years. (For more on this, see The Neuroscience of Intelligence by Richard Haier.) Of course, the risk is that affluent parents will be the first to take advantage of this technology, thereby increasing inequality.

In the meantime, we should acknowledge the limitations of what schools can do. As the Serenity Prayer says, it takes courage to change the things you can – and fortitude to keep on going when you know those changes are bound to be quite modest. 

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