IQ may mean achievement gap can never close

An academic researcher has suggested that academic achievement “gaps” between different groups of pupils cannot be closed as differences in intelligence cannot be “erased”.

Dr Stuart Ritchie (pictured), from the University of Edinburgh, presented research describing the genetic link to IQ, a measure of intelligence, and its controversies in education.

Speaking to Schools Week after Saturday’s event, Dr Ritchie said teachers should not dismiss IQ tests.

“There is a very strong correlation between IQ and certain factors, such as mortality. Research with more than one million subjects shows this is not just a coincidence. It is strong evidence.

“Research shows that education can improve intelligence. But you cannot get away from the fact that is a genetic [intelligence] trait.

“There are various aspects of the environment that can improve intelligence – malnourished kids get poorer scores – but that is not as much of a problem in the UK.”

One delegate on Saturday asked Dr Ritchie: “If [achievement] difference is so genetic what does that mean for attempts to close the gap between pupils with disadvantaged and less advantaged backgrounds?”

He responded: “It means it is much more difficult than people assume.”

Dr Ritchie explained that while there is some evidence that environments can impact intelligence, most research suggested that education could lift all people’s intelligence, but not even it out.

“But maybe making everyone equal is not what we are looking for. Maybe we are looking for bringing everyone up, and everyone doing the best they can do, rather than only bringing up those at the lower end.”

Another audience member asked why [they] should be a teacher if the result “has nothing to do with [them]”.

Previous academic studies found that schooling could increase the average (mean) intelligence across cohorts, Dr Ritchie said.

“You could theoretically increase everyone’s intelligence, though the heritability levels stays the same. So you could think about raising people’s mean intelligence and not erasing the difference. So it is less likely that we can equalise intelligence — and not everyone even wants to do that — but it is much more likely we can raise mean intelligence than erase differences.”

The audience were shown illustrations such as the picture of the brain, above. This image shows the “pathways” in white matter; a brain of someone with high levels of intelligence will have clearer white pathways, but as someone ages – of if they are less intelligent – these pathways will break down.

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  1. It is surprising that educationalists should doubt these ideas. If we measure most populations of living things or even parts of living things, in practically all cases they show a “normal” distribution, or bell shaped curve. The variation in what is measured is caused by a combination of genetics and environment. This has been known for at least half a century. Why should human academic attainment be any different?

    We can train everyone to be fitter but some people have the genes that make them run faster than the average person. Whatever the training regime, very few people will run as fast as Usain Bolt. We don’t criticise athletic coaches for not getting everyone to run as fast as Usain, but we seem to think teachers are always at fault if students don’t achieve “above average”.

    All teachers can do is try to get the most out of the young people in their care. Getting less than a C at GCSE is not a disease. It is a natural phenomenon. The worst aspect of our system is making young people feel bad about getting a D grade or lower. We would not make people feel bad about having shorter than average fingers. Sadly the teaching profession seems unable to speak up about the myths of everyone being the same. Variation is what created all species alive today, including humans.

  2. …and why on earth would we want to ‘erase’ differences? Difference is what makes us rich in diversity. What we should want is acceptance of differences and for everyone to reach his or her potential whatever their IQ happens to be. Everyone is blessed with an innate intelligence,it’s more than about academics. As I age I’m sure that my neural pathways are breaking down, that doesn’t make me less of a person, just as it doesn’t make anyone younger with a low IQ less of a person.

  3. Nadia Edmond

    Oh what? this old chestnut? Yes it is very likely that ‘intelligence’ (which is not necessarily the same thing as that which IQ tests measure) is normally distributed, that is not the issue. The analogy with physical prowess given by Assemblytube in comment above is flawed because there is no test of physical aptitude that we can give children that will tell us what we can expect from them – that effectively puts a ceiling on our (and thereby their) beliefs of their capacity. On the contrary with physical performance we recognise that we can never know quite what an individual’s potential is. There is no point at which we can quantify a ‘physical aptitude quotient’ and say “that’s it, it doesn’t matter how much more practice. more training you do you can never improve”. We also recognise how important socio-cultural factors are in predicting expressions of physical ability.

    IQ claims to measure intellectual ability and is a form of ability labelling which along with other forms of such labelling function as a self fulfilling prophecy.

    Validity of IQ tests is determined by correlation with academic achievement (and it does need stressing that academic achievement is not the same thing as intelligence – there are many reasons why intelligent children do not do well at school). But as we all know correlation is not causality and where there is causality, correlation does not identify the mechanism of that causality. What if IQ tests along with other assessments of intelligence or ability are themselves causal in the correlation we observe, not because of an inherent intellectual ability but because of the power of labelling?

    The issue is not whether we can expect intelligence to be normally distributed in a population, maybe we can. It is not whether IQ is correlated with academic achievement, it is designed to be. It is not whether there is an achievement gap, there is and we know that the strongest correlation is with class and other factors of social disadvantage.

    The real issue is that the best teaching helps individuals reach their potential accepting that we can never know beforehand what that potential is. The best teaching does not bound expectations by arbitrary limits or use recourse to such limits as an excuse. The best teaching is premised on the belief that everyone is capapble of more.

  4. There’s an incredible amount of misinformation on IQ, relevancy, etc. put out there by the media and radical intellectuals over the past 50 years in a strong effort to square a circle.

    Here’s a good primer on it for those interested:

    Basically here’s what the psychometric evidence shows: IQ is real, unbiased, highly predictive, highly replicable (especially past age 15), highly heritable, not influenced by shared environment (family upbringing), and yes, shows stubborn gaps between population groups on average that are almost certainly biological in nature.

    One can either accept the facts as a grown-up, or freak out like creationists and anti-vaccine nutjobs do. Your call.