The question of genetics and the role, if any, it has to play in education was thrust back into the spotlight last month when Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove’s special adviser on education, wrote that educationists need to better understand the impact of genetics on children and that up to 70 per cent of a child’s performance is related to his, or her, genes.
It was met with howls of protest in some quarters – Shadow schools Minister Kevin Brennan said his views “sent a chill down the spine” – but it has put the nature versus nurture debate back on the table.
It’s an issue highlighted by Dr Kathryn Asbury, a lecturer in psychology in education at York University, in her new book, G is for Genes – The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement, which she has co-written with Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural Genetics at King’s College, London. The book looks at what’s known as “heritability” – the genetic influence on why some children learn more easily and quickly than others. “One of the messages we really want to get out there is that genes are not deterministic, they’re just one influence on a child and how they develop,” says Dr Asbury.
She points out that the research Mr Gove’s adviser was referring to is nothing new. “We know that genes influence the differences between children. It’s not that 70 per cent of how good you are at maths is determined by your genes, it’s just that 70 per cent of the differences between children are influenced by genes,” she says. “No child ever learns to read without someone teaching them and giving them books. So the fact that a child learns to read in the first place is entirely driven by their experiences, their nurture. But once you get past the fact that some read really quickly and some really struggle with it, those differences are influenced by their genes.”
The question of genetics in education is still a taboo subject but it’s something Dr Asbury and Prof Plomin felt the need to address. “The actual evidence for genetic influence on learning abilities and disabilities is really uncontroversial in the science community. But I think what teachers, parents and the media tend to think is that this is something very scary and is going to be used to be elitist and to discriminate against more vulnerable people. But what we try to say in our book is that we’ve got this knowledge, we don’t know if it’s useful but let’s talk about it.”
Rather than simply helping the most gifted children she believes that genetic knowledge can be used to help the most vulnerable in society by targeting what they’re good at. “In the future genetic technology might be available for us to use DNA to predict strengths and weaknesses and allow us to tailor education and allow those strengths to flourish. We’re not there yet but I think we need to talk about it because once we are there people could use that information wrongly and we need to be prepared to regulate it properly.”
In the book they have come up with a skeleton idea of what a genetically-sensitive school might look like which Dr Asbury hopes will kick-start a proper, grown-up debate. “The general idea is that if a teacher has 30 kids sat in front of them then how can they teach each child a different lesson? But we think it matters because each child is different and they’re different for biological as well sociological reasons. So finding a way of personalising teaching more than we currently do is a good idea,” she says. “One of the things we propose is that every child has a home visitor who comes in to see them and meet their family before they ever go to school. That way they learn a little bit about who that child is, who their parents are and what their family situation is and that person can be a key worker throughout the child’s education. So if something starts to go wrong and a child goes off the rails and starts failing their exams, there’s somebody who has known that child since they were three or four. They can recognise what might be going on and how to help because often at secondary school there isn’t anyone who really knows each child.”
Dr Asbury believes the ideas she and Prof Plomin have laid out can help give all children a chance, not only the brightest. “If you have all the facilities available at school and they’re subsidised so you have a level playing field, then those more vulnerable children have a much better chance of finding their natural talents. So that when they leave school even if they don’t have loads of GCSEs or A-levels, they hopefully have a clearer sense of who they are and who they want to be and they have the tools to go out and do that, because I think at the moment we just engender feelings of failure in these kids and that’s an awful way to start your adult life. I think a good school gets all children to a good basic skills level so they can function in society, they’re literate, they’re numerate and they can handle computers. But on top of that we should be trying to find what every child is good at, we should find their talent and nurture it. So if it turns out that the child growing up in Harehills in Leeds is into sailing then it’s made possible and school makes it possible.”