Raj Persaud: Being clever is pointless if you don't want to learn

The relentless rise in each generation's IQ has been shown throughout the industrialised world

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That the pass rate for GCSEs and A-levels has gone up yet again has raised the hoary old question of whether exams are getting easier - as us grumpy oldies like to protest, dimly recalling our own miserable results - or whether today's adolescents are genuine geniuses. The Government, like all governments, would like to claim the credit via its education policy, while the Opposition counters that the results don't mean anything, because employers continue to bemoan the basic abilities of school leavers.

That the pass rate for GCSEs and A-levels has gone up yet again has raised the hoary old question of whether exams are getting easier - as us grumpy oldies like to protest, dimly recalling our own miserable results - or whether today's adolescents are genuine geniuses. The Government, like all governments, would like to claim the credit via its education policy, while the Opposition counters that the results don't mean anything, because employers continue to bemoan the basic abilities of school leavers.

But psychologists have a different, rather surprising explanation. It's easy to forget the two key predictors of performance are basic ability, combined with motivation. Oddly enough, one has been going up while the other has been quietly declining to crisis levels.

Perhaps the most astonishing result from cross-national psychological surveys in recent years is that each subsequent generation since the 1930s has been brighter than the previous one, according to IQ data. This relentless rise in each generation's IQ has been demonstrated throughout the industrialised world, with the average increase in the intelligence of children of the same age being three points per decade. Indeed, James Flynn, the New Zealand psychologist who first drew attention to this remarkable phenomenon (the rise is known as the "Flynn Effect"), has recently demonstrated an acceleration. The IQ of children of the same age is now going up, on average, 3.5 points per decade since the 1970s and 1980s.

Possible explanations for this startling effect include better diet and health, which have also raised average height since 1945, smaller families ensuring more parental attention per child, and higher levels of environmental stimulation.

But others find the IQ data and school exam results hard to swallow. Flynn himself points out that there doesn't appear to be the kind of explosion of scientific and artistic output one would have expected by now, if each generation is so much brighter than the last, added to which teachers themselves do not report their pupils are becoming noticeably brilliant.

Instead, when educationalists in the West are surveyed, they report disquietingly declining levels of motivation among their pupils. Low motivation can be accounted for by a decline in the challenge posed by the education system. If students tend to be brighter than in the past, but schools have not raised the bar sufficiently in terms of their intellectual demands, then learners will not be motivated to try as hard; why should they, if they are going to get better results with less effort?

It is this vital issue of motivation that is being ignored in the debate about national performance. Neil Hufton at the University of Sunderland has led a team of education researchers which, since 1996, has been comparing motivation in schools in Sunderland with eastern Kentucky in the United States, and St Petersburg in the Russian Federation. A consistent finding has not only been lower levels of motivation among Western schoolchildren compared with those in Russia, but also a tendency for Western pupils to overestimate their own level of motivation.

The declining levels of motivation could also explain the other big story this week: Britain's mixed medal performance in the Olympics. While it is intriguing to note the two societies much poorer than the US, but currently snapping at its heels in the medal table, Russia and China, are precisely the two countries where surveys confirm it is very difficult indeed to squeeze praise out of your teacher.

It is perhaps no accident that the true testament to motivation this week was not the generally good results of our pampered adolescents, but the amazing six A grades achieved by Kosovan refugee Vildane Berani, despite recently arriving in Britain, fleeing Serbian persecution, while her family survives on benefits of £90 a week. Her strong motivation accounts for her amazing performance, despite all the obstacles placed in her way by UK officialdom.

Yet Berani might still lose her place at Oxford Medical School due to the slow pace at which Home Office officials are considering her appeal to stay in Britain. The contrast in drive and motivation between those whose futures are uncertain, and those whose Civil Service jobs are assured, could not be starker.

If we want to halt our slide into a nation of quarter-finalists and fourth-place finishers, we have much to learn from those whose lives we currently render most difficult, but who then, as a consequence, outperform us.

The author is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London

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