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Charles Bannerman: 'Closing the educational attainment gap is not as easy as some may think'

By Charles Bannerman

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Is genetics a factor in education?
Is genetics a factor in education?

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville should not be condemned for admitting that complete elimination of the educational attainment gap between the more and the less affluent isn’t possible. She is simply acknowledging reality and inevitability, writes columnist Charles Bannerman.

Social measures can certainly help address the large disparity between children from deprived and privileged backgrounds, but one of its major causes derives from nature rather than nurture, therefore limiting how far it can be reduced.

That factor is genes, or heredity. When I was teaching, one great big elephant in the room seemed to be any suggestion that a child’s academic ability might be partly inherited from their parents. This apparent taboo was never mentioned much, even though the correlation became pretty evident once you’d sat through a few parents’ evenings.

But despite that, and numerous scientific studies, the notion that brainpower is significantly – although not totally – hereditary often seemed to be some kind of heresy, even though inheritance of much else from hair colour and facial features to sporting ability and height being hereditary seemed perfectly acceptable.

Several studies have concluded that academic ability is significantly – although not totally – inherited from parents, and many place the correlation around or above 50 per cent.

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So although we’re only talking about a tendency here, that’s enough to explain, in part, why there’s also a tendency towards an attainment gap.

The reasoning is that parents’ intellectual capacity broadly influences both that of their offspring and their own earning capacity, leading to a significant genetic correlation between parental affluence and their children’s academic ability which means that, unfortunately, absolutely nothing can be done about it.

What can be eased are things like adverse educational effects of poor parental attitude and inability to afford books and educational aids. So, while the nurture contribution to the gap can be addressed, the nature bit is fixed genetically so that gap can only ever be partially closed.

This also influences how schools in deprived areas tend to produce poorer results than those in more affluent ones.

If you get a lot of clever kids through your school door, many of them further aided by private tutoring, it’s difficult to go wrong and conversely it’s also unfair to brand low scoring schools as “failing”.

Charles Bannerman.
Charles Bannerman.

They can only work with what they get. This additionally challenges the thinking behind some universities’ apparent discrimination against middle-class applicants.

Individual schools’ performances, driven by housing demographics, have also shifted and indeed polarised across time for the same reason.

After the war, council schemes were much more socio-economically eclectic, with far more high achieving, relatively high earning parents. But from around the 1960s, the more affluent began to buy their own homes in private developments, so largely moved out of council estates.

This steady social polarisation had a radical effect on school performance since schools in progressively less-affluent areas began to lose many of their brightest pupils while those in more prosperous ones benefited.

This all originates from the genetic component of academic ability, as I also found on performing my own informal studies across 37 years of teaching, analysing secondary school test marks by primary school of origin.

So if academic ability is partly genetic, this inevitably makes any politician’s highly laudable pledge to close the attainment gap extremely risky, with prospects of success limited by nature.

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