In the nature v nurture debate of child development, academic research is squeezing the role of nurture like never before. A recent study in Nature shows 2 year-olds inherit language learning ability; a study of over 5,000 twin pairs from 2013 estimated 58% of performance in English, Maths and Science GCSEs is accounted for by genes. Some have estimated (£) the genetic contribution to literacy levels as high as 77%. So far all the responses to this nature consensus I've seen, from David Didau and Andrew Sabisky (courtesy of Nobody's Blog) , is to say we can't change the fact some children outperform others and must instead focus on raising every child's attainment an equal amount. This is sometimes referred to as 'moving the curve' and is visualised here, where the y axis is number of pupils, the x axis academic attainment.
The problem with this rallying cry for the profession is that while superficially appearing to benefit everyone equally it ignores the fact that position relative to others is the most significant educational outcome. The opportunities that children at the back end of the curve are afforded by their education are the ones rejected by those with higher attainment. Moving the curve doesn't change this.
If a person's position on that curve is determined by their genes and therefore largely beyond their control then this is far from being an academic, in the sense of unimportant, debate. For if we assign people status in society based on their genetic make up how is our system morally distinguishable from Apartheid?
Under Apartheid you acquire benefits/deficits automatically; at school you have do something to get those benefits, so does that provide an adequate distinction? If we decided who was going to be rich and poor with running races would you justify the system by saying that nature's sprinters still have to turn up and run? No, the system is still clearly biased in their favour. In fact this difference makes our school system more unjust than racial division, because those at the top of the curve are rewarded for hard work by being told they're better than others, while those at the bottom are punished for it by being told they're worse. Natural differences in cognitive ability are magnified and metastasised by encouraging effort from the 'bright' and discouraging it from the 'dim'.
Is it crudely reductionist to say that Education's main purpose is to determine position in society? That's a charge that comes my way by those who seem to imply my attention to this aspect of our school system is my own peculiar fetish. A typical example came this week when Harry Webb tweeted 'Cadwalladered. So you're all about emphasising who comes top and bottom in things?' The only people who ridicule the idea of education as a marker of social status are those who were successful at it, just like aristocrats who dismiss the poor as vulgar for their preoccupation with money. If you come bottom in terms of academic attainment then the key takeaway from your education is that your work is worth less than that of others and that, by extension, you are an inferior human being. That's a horrible experience for a person to suffer.
So the situation is unfair; isn't it God's unfairness not man's? No, for there is nothing fixed or inviolate about a curriculum that only includes academic subjects and so ranks children by academic skill. Even where we stray from this narrow path into areas like Art and Drama we insist they involve significant amounts of writing about Art and Drama. Of the four aims of the new Art KS3 curriculum twoare related to producing art, the other two to analysing work and itshistory. Our insistence that all success is mediated through one type of cognitive ability we know to be largely inherited is perverse. School is where children learn, above all, their place in society. By choosing a solely academic curriculum we choose to make that society an unequal one. We could just as easily adopt a curriculum for equality.
Could schools really make such a powerful switch? Aren't they responding to the job market as an impartial adjudicator of what different types of work are worth? Markets are not impartial, they are an aggregation of people's beliefs and choices. The worth the 'market' assigns to a particular type of work depends on what people in that market have been taught to value. The same applies to the way people appraise their own worth to society; people accept low pay because they've been taught they are less valuable than everyone else. Educators can't wash their hands and say this a problem with society that is not their responsibility to fix. The belief that a person's value depends on their cognitive ability is a direct result of what we teach children at school.
Apartheid was a man made system designed to give people with a certain genetic pedigree privilege over others. Education distributes privilege along a gradient rather than dividing society into black and white but where you fall on that gradient primarily depends on your genes, not your efforts. Someone born with low cognitive ability cannot succeed in our schools any more than a black person can make themselves white. The victims of this injustice are those least able to analyse its causes and express their discontent, so the well educated can bandy terms like 'meritocracy' around without being challenged to say why being born clever makes you anymore deserving than being born with pale skin. If we care about social justice we have to change school; punishing people for who they are is wrong.