Kathryn Asbury

Genes do influence children, and acknowledging that can make schools better

Every September teachers up and down the land welcome new classes of children. Each child they see in front of them is visibly unique and will present them with different challenges as the year progresses. Some will learn easily and well while others will find learning new skills difficult and need additional support. Some, especially the youngest ones, will need the adults in the classroom to help them with reading and numbers, others with concentrating and sitting still, and still others with making friends. Particularly vulnerable children may need help in all of these areas. Children differ and it is important therefore that schools provide equal but different opportunities for them to learn and develop. Teachers understand that many of the differences they see between children are influenced by genes as well as experiences. I say this with confidence because just a few years ago researchers from the UK-based Twins’ Early Development Study (TEDS) asked hundreds of primary school teachers exactly this question and more than 90 per cent said they believed that nature had at least as much impact as nurture on differences between pupils in how well they learn. What teachers see in the classroom is precisely what scientists see in the data. No controversy there.

And yet, when it is publicly acknowledged that children’s achievement in school is influenced by genes a tumbleweed moment often ensues. Putting genetics and education in the same sentence is a modern taboo. There’s a tendency for people to anger quickly and to start throwing around accusations and assumptions which only serve to replace the tumbleweed with a fog of fear and hate. Something similar to this happened last Saturday when the Guardian published a front page article regarding a leaked essay by Michael Gove’s special advisor, Dominic Cummings. Although only a fraction of Cummings’ essay discussed genetics and education this was the fraction that captured media attention and public interest.

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