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 mean 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 increase 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.
In 2011, I founded Achievement for All, a charity that has engaged in partnership with almost 5,000 settings, schools and colleges in the co-delivery of the Achievement for All programme aimed at improving outcomes for children with special educational needs and those experiencing disadvantage.
In the Achievement for All pilot study, Professor Neil Humphrey and his colleagues illustrate the impact of leadership, teaching, parent and carer engagement, and wider opportunities (social and cultural) on improving the educational outcomes of pupils identified with special educational needs in 454 schools across England. A five year longitudinal study by PwC (2016) reports the profound impact of the programme on 100,000 targeted children (special educational needs and disadvantaged) in over 2,500 schools, improving outcomes in reading, writing and maths up to 50% above national expectations. In short through the programme, leaders, teachers, parents and carers had made a difference on improving academic outcomes of disadvantaged children.
The range of evidence demonstrated above and the reality of academic success, questions the balance between the influence of environmental factors and those pre-determined by genetics, particularly for those children from low socio-economic backgrounds This evidence also questions the implication that it is only through a greater understanding of neuro science and related advancements in technology and pharmaceutical interventions that we will resolve the prevailing inequality in education. I suggest that the solution is societal and that we should engage in a new way of thinking to address the greatest injustice of today – working class social mobility.
There is no evidence that the working class cannot achieve – in education, employment, housing and health. There is also no evidence that the working class are any less likely to have a desire for success than others. What there is, though, a lack of societal ambition outside those spurious targets (like university entry) that only concern 50 per cent of the population at best. To increase ambition for the working class there needs to be a mutual understanding of what is available in terms of alternatives, and engagement with the working class about what they actually want. By talking and listening ambitions can be shared – a do with rather than do to approach.
There is also no evidence that the attainment gap cannot be closed for all children, regardless of background, challenge or need. The key to change in education is to engender self-belief, building the core in every child at the earliest stages of their development through Aspiration, ‘I can’, Access, ‘I do, Attainment, ‘I have’, and Achievement, ‘I am’. Success that is determined by environment rather than pre-determined by genetics.
That said, rather than reducing the chances of failure within the working class over the last forty years, we have increased the possibility in housing, education and social care. This should not have happened, nor should it be allowed to continue. Back in 1973 authors of the National Children’s Bureau Born to Fail? report referenced Tawney, ‘The continuance of social evils is not due to the fact that we do not know what is right, but that we prefer to continue doing what is wrong. Those who have the power to remove them do not have the will, and those who have the will have not, as yet, the power’. The power rests within us all. With new thinking, mutuality, respect and collaboration working class children can succeed from birth, at school in post 16 study and in the workplace. Valuing every member of society as an equal, rather than a path to success that is determined by one social class for another.
Ultimately, it is about taking responsibility, owning a shared moral purpose, shared ambition and integrity that can provide the opportunities and resources needed for all children and their families to achieve. This is social justice in action, and possibly, social mobility that really works. If we are to discover a lasting solution, and ensure social justice as a result, we need to come up with some new thinking and not repeat familiar actions of the past. And we need to recognise, that we all have a part to play that will ensure every child across the country should have a choice, an opportunity, and a secure future. And if they’re given it, every single one of us will benefit.