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Education, segregation and genetic testing

· Research,Education,politics

The current educational climate in the UK is a complex one, and this post is more about food for thought than any concrete solutions.

We are living in a time where there is a focus on high stakes testing at a young age, discussions around how schools and universities can make and spend their money as well as the recent addition of grammar schools to the table. This means there are a lot of different factors tugging at the entire culture of education and therefore affecting the life trajectory of millions of children, teenagers and young adults.

I am entering my fifth year of being a trained teacher and my tenth year of skills training. In what is such a relatively small amount of time, I have seen many fads and drastic changes in approach to the education system. Rather worryingly, they seem to be motivated more by individual ideals rather than evidence based approaches or the actual empirical measurement of outcomes. Take for instance the move to academies in UK schools which is supposedly implemented to improve failing schools… yet schools are almost four times as likely to remain ‘failing’ if they are under academy control.

Therefore it always interests me when evidence based articles are published around education, but today I read one that worries me because of how it may be applied (despite it being a fantastic bit of science).

For years scientists have been looking into the genetic predictors of educational success. In the past, studies of twins have always shown that genetics played a part in educational success, but were unable to show what genes were involved. However, patterns of genes have since been emerging.

It begins by looking at people who are successful in educational settings and noting what genetic markers they have. Doing this on a large scale reveals patterns of markers that can indicate success. From there, scientists can then check the genetic markers of unknown participants and see whether having more markers means higher chances: staying in education for longer, attaining higher grades, engaging in higher levels of study, learning to read at an early age, tackling more subjects etc.

Selzam and her team have been using the latest marker research to measure genetics against success. Their marker scores accounted for 9.1% of the variance in the GCSE results of 4,300 British teenagers. Now, nearly 10% may sound small, but in the world of social science it’s quite a big deal – especially when you start adding on top how much of success can also be predicted by socio-economic status, parents education etc.

What this means is that we are moving closer to a time where we can screen for success at an early age. Not with total accuracy, but we can get an indication of likelihood – rather like a phonics screening, or an 11+ test which are supposed to indicate attainment further down the line.

In a world where science can do such amazing things it can make you wonder how it will be used to influence the culture of our educational climate. Does this mean that policymakers or educational establishments will seek to use genetic testing as part of the admissions process; selecting people with more markers for ‘top’ universities or certain types of educational track? Does this mean that children will be segregated based on their early predictors in the same way an 11+ is administered for grammar school entry?

Or does this mean that screening processes can be used as part of early intervention… identifying those with less markers and ensuring that they receive higher quality teaching, smaller class sizes, access to tuition and training to boost their chances? One must bear in mind that there are still many other factors that have an influence on success – such as grit, which can be trained and developed over time.

I hope that if this genetic testing does take off in any way then the latter is how it will be implemented – as a tool to target those in need of additional training rather than a way to ‘cream off’ those who are starting on a stronger foundation.

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