Is it all in the DNA?

Robert Plomin, Professor of Behavioural Genetics at King’s College, London

Last week, Robert Plomin, Professor of Behavioural Genetics at King’s College, London, argued that sending children to private schools is essentially a waste of time because academic success is written in the genes. He mused:

“So why send your kids to Eton? Don’t. If all you’re doing it for is educational achievement. Schools matter, kids have got to learn all this stuff. But do they make a difference? The answer is no.”

Baseline Data from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University (CEM) quite clearly indicates that independent schools do add additional value in terms of value added performance. That is why they insist on higher standardised residuals for the independent sector. After all, it is right that, given our additional resources, we should add that extra bit of value. Plomin’s determinist argument would seem to counter all that we know about neuroplasticity and the importance of adopting a growth mindset. Even so, he does concede that genetic disposition only accounts for 50% of academic success. He professes to be unclear as to what the other 50% is dependent upon.

The problem with his pronouncement is that it seems to infer that parents who elect to send their children to an independent school are doing so in order to buy GCSE or A Level grades. Or, in the case of schools such as Harrow, Eton, or Winchester, he presumes that it is down to social posturing or prestige. He attributes the academic success of independent schools to their stringent selection criteria whilst failing to acknowledge that a clear majority of schools in the sector are broadly non-selective. Indeed, at Rossall we pride ourselves on our ability to add value whatever a child’s starting point.

Personally, I struggle with Plomin’s depressingly determinist understanding of human intelligence and I wonder what purpose it serves. After all, it is hardly a groundbreaking piece of scientific research to observe that innate ability plays a role in determining our performance in certain regards. I grew up slightly in the shadow of a very talented older brother whose musicality far surpassed anything I could ever hope to achieve. However, I worked extremely hard to become a reasonably proficient bassoonist, pianist and singer and more importantly, I derived a lifelong enjoyment of music along the way. At the age of forty two, I still work hard to become a better pianist and whether it is mastering Chopin’s Nocturnes or Bach’s English Suite, I am excited by the challenge of becoming more accomplished rather than deterred by the mountain that I still need to climb. Perhaps this is partly due to a sense of hope which transcends experience!

Whilst, some of us might not have the wherewithal to become world class athletes and we know that we are unlikely to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Science, we can, with encouragement, challenge, hard work, and a positive mindset, reach a level of proficiency in a whole range of fields where our ‘natural’ aptitude is perhaps weak. There are plenty of professional footballers who have lacked inspired brilliance but achieved longevity by being tenacious workhorses. So DNA may play a part but given that it is essentially unchangeable there would appear to be little to be gained from dwelling on this fact. Surely it is much more interesting to focus on those things that we can change.

The point is that parents do not routinely choose private education for social reasons or just because they want to ensure success in public examinations. Do not get me wrong, results matter in so much as they are truly indicative of value added and progress made but parents should routinely expect a high quality of teaching and learning from any decent school. People choose schools like Rossall because of the variety and quality of opportunities that we offer. They choose us because of the warmth and richness of our community as well as the strong ethos and values of the school. Above all, I believe that they choose us because we develop young people with the confidence and desire to go out into the world and achieve good things. Attending the 175th Anniversary Ball and other Old Rossallian events this past year has impressed upon me just how successful Rossall has been at nurturing these character attributes and and equipping young men and women with the skills, resilience and emotional intelligence necessary to make a resounding success of their lives.

If Plomin’s words were meant to provide comfort to those who do not have access to a good schooling (whether it be independent or state) then I would suggest that the focus he places on unchangeable aspects of our constitution will provide little by way of solace. At Rossall, we will always focus upon what we can change rather than lamenting what it is arguably immovable. Most importantly, we work with young people to help them discover their interests, talents and passions. It is this personal investment and focus upon the extraordinary potential of each individual which distinguishes schools such as Rossall from the mainstream.

To learn more about Rossall’s use of baseline testing and value-added data, do talk to either Dina Porovic, Deputy Head (Teaching and Learning) or David Clarke, Director of Professional Development.