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King's College London - Health: More than a medical matter

Controversy over 'better' middle-class genes comment

17 May 2009

By Dr Rebecca Robey

Appeared in BioNews 508

Chris Woodhead, the former UK Chief Inspector of Schools, has caused controversy by suggesting that middle-class children have 'better' genes when it comes to intellect and so will inevitably do better in school than children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Speaking in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Mr Woodhead reflected on the current education system. He argued that in a strive for equality, the fact that some children are naturally less bright than others was being overlooked, and that this was to the detriment of all pupils regardless of their ability. He said: 'I've taught, and I can still remember trying to interest children who had no interest whatsoever in English. They didn't want to be in the classroom....They were disruptive to the children who did want to learn'. Instead, he proposed that 'if we had a system whereby those young people were able to follow practical educational courses that gave them a sense of worth, a sense that they weren't dull and less intelligent than others, it would [be] much better for them'.

Within this context, Mr Woodhead commented: 'the genes are likely to be better if your parents are teachers, academics, lawyers, whatever. And the nurture is likely to be better'. Although, he acknowledged that 'that doesn't mean there aren't going to be DH Lawrences', in reference to the celebrated writer whose father was a barely-literate miner.

The influence of genes and the environment on academic intelligence has been a much debated subject. In reality, it is very hard to distinguish between the effects of nurture and nature on a child's academic success. In response to Mr Woodhead's comments, the BBC News online referred to a study published in 2003 by Dr Leon Feinstein of the Institute of Education at the University of London.

Dr Feinstein examined data tracking the educational success of over 17,000 individuals from diverse social backgrounds all born in the same week in April 1970 and enrolled in the 1970 Birth Cohort Survey. The children completed educational tests at 22 months, 42 months, five years and ten years, and at 26 years, their lifetime achievements in public examinations were recorded.

Overall, he found that a child's performances in the pre-school tests were a strong indication of their later academic success. However, he also found that many children that performed badly early in life improved dramatically as they progressed through their education. Strikingly, early low achievers from higher socio-economic groups were considerably more likely to show improved intellectual aptitude later in their schooling than early low achievers from poorer backgrounds, indicating the importance of a child having a supportive environment in order to fulfil their academic potential.


The Guardian | 12 May 2009
The Daily Telegraph | 12 May 2009
The Guardian | 11 May 2009
BBC News Online | 15 May 2009


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