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HomeNewsMark Ellse:  Success at school is largely a matter of genetics

Mark Ellse:  Success at school is largely a matter of genetics


It’s astonishing to see the birth of an impala. Those gangling limbs, how on earth do they sort themselves out so that the calf can be delivered? And those same limbs, minutes later, are under full control and the calf can run with the herd.

The calf’s success is nothing to do with environment: there was certainly no room for exercise in the womb. Nor education, of course. What a silly idea! What one sees is the innate, inherited ability, the effect of the genetic makeup of the animal and the amazing consequences of that.

It’s the same with humans, of course. We are much less obviously competent at birth but the genetic aspects of our makeup are no less evident. Our ability with language is genetically determined: however much one raises a gorilla like a baby, it never develops the ability to talk. We are born with brains that are wired up to talk and count. With modern brain imaging techniques we can identify the parts of the brain that do these jobs.

Now some impala run quicker than others and some humans talk and count with more facility than others. From an early age, brain scans can identify which of us will find cognitive tasks easier. A recent study at Stanford University has shown that brain scans are a much better predictor of maths performance than any tests of pupil skills. It is a startling thought. We can look inside the brain of a child and see how the brain is wired up. From that we can see whether the child will be a good mathematician or not.

Well, in some ways this isn’t a great revelation. Look what we can already see from the outside. I’m rather scrawny. Anyone who looked at me in my youth could see that I would never make an Olympic weightlifter. It’s not surprising: my father and mother were both scrawny. And, since my wife is also tall and thin, so are our children. On the other hand, we are both good at maths; and so are our own children.
None of this is due to education, nor environment. It’s simple inheritance. And the more we see the physical structures of our brains, the more we can observe the effects of our genetic inheritance and the way that it affects our ability, something that is evident right from the moment of birth.

There is much wishful thinking about education, from both the Left and the Right. The Left yearn to believe that all are intellectually equal at birth and that, if we get education and the environment right, we shall produce a truly equal society. It sometimes seems to me that the Right can be equally misguided: ‘If only we reverted to traditional teaching methods and brought back grammar schools, both educational outcomes and social mobility would be much improved.’

The stark truth is this: educational performance is largely genetically determined. Those ‘good schools’, the ones which get the ‘good results’, do so largely because they get the more able students. Instead of repeatedly reorganising the system and constantly screaming at teachers in a vain attempt to ‘raise standards’ it might be worthwhile tailoring the curriculum to cater better for those whose first gifts are not academic. Perhaps a little more old-fashioned metalwork and woodwork, instead of importing plumbers and carpenters from Poland?

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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