Nature, nurture and education: Michael Gove and the question of genetics in schooling

Controversial academic who advised officials this summer talks to the 'IoS' about his ideas

The world's leading behavioural geneticist is set to reignite a controversial debate over nature and nurture when he publishes a new book calling for Britain to embrace the science of genetics and shake up how children are educated.

Professor Robert Plomin, of King's College London, said he was braced for the "controversy" and revealed that his often divisive ideas had already been "well received" by Education Secretary Michael Gove.

There was public outcry last month when Mr Gove's influential special adviser, Dominic Cummings, citing Professor Plomin's research, revealed that he believes genetics outweighs teaching when it comes to how well children perform at school.

Professor Plomin gave a series of talks at the Department for Education over the summer. "They weren't just there to be polite; to show up. You can tell when an audience is paying attention," Professor Plomin said.

The talks were something of a breakthrough for the contentious discipline, which challenges deeply held beliefs by many politicians and educationalists that any child, irrespective of background, can achieve academically.

Not so, according to G is for Genes, which is published on Thursday and which Professor Plomin co-wrote with Kathryn Asbury, from York University's Centre for Psychology. The book states that behavioural genetics shows that it is wrong to cling to the belief that children are "blank slates". It asserts that the ability to learn is influenced more by genes than experience – the very heart of the nature versus nurture debate.

The book describes the ultimate ideal – "a genetically sensitive school", although Professor Plomin stressed that, contrary to erroneous reports, he has no interest in helping to set one up. He called a newspaper story suggesting otherwise "malicious". His aim, he said, was "not to push a political agenda, but to say: OK, kids are different and you've got to give them resources".

He insisted that ignoring genetics when making policy decisions made no sense. His research into cognitive development showed that cognitive skills such as learning to read, maths and understanding science, are "some of the most heritable, the most genetically influenced traits that we have, far more than personality or mental illness, and yet not a word is said about genetics in education. For a while, people were quite hostile to it."

Despite breaking cover on the issue, one taboo remains: intelligence. Professor Plomin said he deliberately talks only about "educational achievement" because the "I" word is like a "red rag to a bull". "It's too much and most people will shut down. And I want them to get the message about genetics, so there's no need to get into it."

In a further possible sign about what Mr Gove, who was adopted at four months old, may think about genetics, Professor Plomin noted that the Education Secretary's controversial phonics test, which all children now have to sit at the end of year one, "is the most heritable test we have". This is because vocabulary "is the most heritable of all cognitive tests". The test is "the most predictive of later reading ability".

Although learning more about genetics has many possible implications, Professor Plomin said: "My values aren't any more worthwhile than anyone else's." But he added that he would like to push more personalised learning.

"If we really do equalise educational opportunity for all children, we get rid of a lot of the environmental variability, so what's left is the genetic variability. You don't get rid of the genetic differences between the children, so, proportionally, more of the individual differences in school achievement will be due to genetic differences. It may be that's why a national curriculum, to the extent that it's successful, actually does increase heritability."

A DfE spokesman declined to comment either on the reason for inviting Professor Plomin to speak over the summer or on how his views had been received, issuing only a brief statement: "Professor Plomin suggested lots of different things, for example, that genetic research might allow us to help those with learning difficulties much earlier and more effectively."

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