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Outcry over government adviser's claim that educational achievement is genetic

21 October 2013

By Sandy Starr

Appeared in BioNews 727

An adviser to the UK Government has provoked an outcry by arguing that there is a significant genetic basis for children's educational achievement.

The view was put forward in a lengthy and wide-ranging thesis by Dominic Cummings, a senior policy adviser to education secretary Michael Gove. The thesis - originally intended for internal government use, but subsequently leaked to the Guardian newspaper - claims that 'work by one of the pioneers of behavioural genetics, Robert Plomin, has shown that most of the variation in performance of children in English schools is accounted for by within school factors (not between school factors), of which the largest factor is genes'.

The thesis also reveals that Plomin, who is professor of behavioural genetics at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, was recently 'invited...into the Department for Education to explain the science of IQ and genetics to officials and ministers'. Asked by the Independent newspaper to discuss the briefings he gave to Government on this subject, Professor Plomin said 'Mr Gove asked some good questions, but I don't know if he agreed with the evidence presented on substantial genetic influence in individual differences among children in their educational achievement as measured by national curriculum scores'.

The leaked thesis has attracted criticism from political and scientific figures alike. Shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan said the 'claim that most variation in performance is due to genetics rather than teaching quality will send a chill down the spine of every parent'. Steven Rose, emeritus professor of biology at the Open University, argued in New Scientist magazine that 'whatever intelligence hunt for it in the genes is an endeavour driven more by ideological commitment than either biological or social scientific judgement'.

Others, however, have defended the arguments of Cummings and Professor Plomin. Psychologist Dr Kathryn Asbury, coauthor with Plomin of a book on the relationship between genetics and educational achievement, called for educationists to 'remove the taboo about genetics in education'.

Professor Robert Plomin will be discussing his work at the Progress Educational Trust conference 'Double Take: Twins in Genetics and Fertility Treatment', taking place in London on Wednesday 4 December 2013.


16 December 2013 - by Rhys Baker 
Genetics may have a greater impact on the differences between students' GCSE results than upbringing or teaching, according to research from King's College London...
16 December 2013 - by Dr John Gillott 
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Education Committee, Professor Robert Plomin made some very important points. But he needs to rein in the hyperbole if he wants to make headway in political and policy worlds...
02 December 2013 - by Dr John Gillott 
Boris Johnson, Margaret Thatcher, bankers, left-bashing, genetics and IQ – light the blue touch paper and stand back...
04 November 2013 - by Matthew Thomas 
Underlying the genetics of intelligence debate is our strong attachment to the idea of 'potential' and freedom to fulfil it. This blank slate approach to achievement is seductive, but is it based in fact?...
28 October 2013 - by Dr John Gillott 
Dominic Cummings and Robert Plomin are claiming a great deal about the effect of genetics on intelligence, some of which is sound, some of which is not and some of which is very speculative...

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Published by the Progress Educational Trust


Public Conference
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Sue Avery

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Dr Andy Greenfield

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Henry Malter

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross

Sandy Starr


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