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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux ...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power