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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
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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Friday 20th October 2017

It is unfair to blame Oxford for the low number of black undergraduates

David Lammy has been making headlines today, accusing Oxford of ‘social apartheid’ because it offers so few places to black British students. This claim is based on an FOI request Lammy submitted to the university asking how many black British A-level students each college has offered places to in the last six years. The most eye-catching statistic is that 10 out of 32 Oxford colleges did not offer a place to a single black British pupil with A-levels in 2015 and Oriel College has only offered one place to a black British A-level student since 2010.

There is no doubt that Oxford does admit too few black British students, but it is worth pointing out that this data has been sliced and diced to paint the bleakest possible picture. Of the 10 ‘colleges’ that didn’t make any offers to black British applicants in 2015, four are Permanent Private Halls, not full colleges, and admit very few numbers of students, black or white. Another – Harris Manchester – is a former Private Hall and only admits students aged 21 or over. (To read more, click here.)

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Friday 20th October 2017

Sadly, no school can teach true grit

I am currently wrestling with a dilemma. I have agreed to contribute to a panel discussion on character education at University College London, and while I generally applaud schools that try to inculcate qualities like perseverance, resilience, the ability to defer gratification, etc, I am not entirely convinced that these virtues can be taught. Should I swallow my scepticism, or gently point out that it’s naive to expect schools to achieve much in this area?

The panel will be discussing an essay in a periodical called Impact in which philosophers write about education policy. This essay by Randall Curren, a professor of philosophy at the University of Rochester, New York, strikes some pleasingly conservative notes. Curren is in favour of teaching British values (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, tolerance) and believes they can be defended both morally and as the most appropriate set of norms for diverse members of a multicultural society to embrace if they want to live peacefully together. (To read more, click here.)

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Thursday 12th October 2017

Weinstein scandal threatens to engulf Hollywood

According to an ex-employee of Harvey Weinstein’s, the movie producer once whispered something to himself that she found so disturbing she wrote it down. After leaving his film company, where she claimed to have acted as a ‘honeypot’ to lure young models and actresses to meetings with her boss in hotel rooms, she signed a confidentiality agreement. But she has decided to speak out anyway. The words he muttered were: ‘There are things I’ve done that nobody knows.’

This is one of the less shocking details in a long New Yorker article published on Tuesday in which 13 women allege that Weinstein sexually harassed or assaulted them, including three who accuse him of rape. This followed a New York Times investigative piece last week in which the 65-year-old producer is accused of having reached legal settlements with eight women over a period dating back 30 years. The Weinstein Company initially said that he would be taking a leave of absence and his lawyer, Lisa Bloom, described the allegations as ‘patently false’. Then, a few days later, the company announced he had been fired and his lawyer decided she could no longer work for him. (To read more, click here.)

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Monday 9th October 2017

What is Boris up to?

I’m writing this from the Conservative party conference where I can report that Boris Johnson, who has just wowed the blue rinses with a barn-storming speech, isn’t preparing a leadership bid. At least, that’s the line from all those closest to him. Without exception, they say if he was planning something they’d know about it and they don’t. It’s a media concoction. He’s a man without a plan.

I know, I know. That’s exactly what Boris’s team would say if they had just press-ganged the last of 48 MPs to sign a letter to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, which is the magic number needed to trigger a leadership election in this Parliament. And there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical. If Boris waits until Britain has left the EU, which is less than 18 months away, his chances will be significantly lower because the party will want a ‘clean skin’ to succeed Theresa May, not one of the protagonists in the Brexit drama. Someone who can unite the party around their vision for the future, not remind them of their disagreements in the past. Needless to say, there is no lack of younger players waiting for the ball to come loose from the scrum. Boris may only have one more ‘try’ left in him — and the clock is ticking. (To read more, click here.)

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Monday 9th October 2017

Liberal Creationism

This is the 2017 Constance Holden Memorial Address I gave at the International Society For Intelligence Research in Montreal in July.

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Friday 29th September 2017

Do one in four girls aged 14 really suffer from depression? Probably not

Are British teenagers suffering from an epidemic of mental illness? Yes, according to a ‘government-funded study’ which found that 24 per cent of 14-year-old girls are suffering from depression. This has been seized upon by critics of Conservative education policies; they see it as ‘proof’ that the increased focus on teaching children knowledge, as well as more frequent testing and the GCSE reforms, have literally driven children mad. ‘One in four girls is clinically depressed by the time they turn 14,’ reported the Guardian.

I’m sceptical about this and I took a look at the research carried out by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which is based at UCL Institute for Education. It involved asking 14-year-olds in the Millennium Cohort Study to fill out a questionnaire called Short Moods and Feelings. This is an American document that uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ criteria for depression. It lists 13 symptoms in the form of first-person statements like ‘I thought I could never be as good as other kids’ and asks respondents to indicate ‘Not true’, ‘Sometimes’ or ‘True’, depending on how often they’ve experienced these feeling in the past two weeks. A total of 11,394 children completed the survey, which is a respectable sample size. (To read more, click here.)

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