‘If I were education secretary…’

Differences between children’s performance at school are not just due to differences in parenting and home life or differences in teachers and school life — to an even greater extent, they are due to DNA differences between children. These differences account for more than half of the differences in performance from reception through to GCSE.

Children are inherently different in how easily they learn, how they learn, and what they learn. Genetics affects not only their aptitudes but also their appetites (motivation and interests) and their adjustment (mental health and well-being). The implications of genetics will become urgent for education as the specific genes responsible for genetic influence are identified and result in “DNA chips” that can predict strengths and weaknesses from birth.

No specific policy implications necessarily follow from finding strong genetic influence on children’s school performance. Policy involves values as well as facts. The fact of major genetic influence can lead to completely different policies depending on values — from right-wing policies (eg, educate the best, forget the rest) to left-wing policies (eg, do what it takes to have all children reach a minimal level of literacy and numeracy).

However, genetics has an important general implication: any one-size-fits-all educational programme aimed at the average child is doomed to fail most children. The genetic message is definitely not that there is nothing we can do about children’s differences in school performance. The paramount policy implication is that children are inherently different and the educational system needs to recognise and respect those differences, providing opportunities for personalised learning that aim to maximise children’s individual strengths and minimise their weaknesses. Computers can help to make this happen, freeing teachers to individualise pupils’ experiences even more.

Robert Plomin is co-author of G Is for Genes: What Genetics Can Teach Us About How We Teach Our Children (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)


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