Philip Ball in New Statesman:
Researchers are now becoming confident enough to claim that the information available from sequencing a person’s genome – the instructions encoded in our DNA that influence our physical and behavioural traits – can be used to make predictions about their potential to achieve academic success. “The speed of this research has surprised me,” says the psychologist Kathryn Asbury of the University of York, “and I think that it is probable that pretty soon someone – probably a commercial company – will start to try to sell it in some way.” Asbury believes “it is vital that we have regulations in place for the use of genetic information in education and that we prepare legal, social and ethical cases for how it could and should be used.” If that sounds frightening, however, it might be because of a wide misapprehension about what genes are and what they do.
It’s sometimes said that the whole notion that intelligence has a genetic component is anathema to the liberals and left-wingers who dominate education. Young reliably depicts the extreme version here, saying “liberal educationalists… reject the idea that intelligence has a genetic basis [and] prefer to think of man as a tabula rasa, forged by society rather than nature”. He’s not alone, though. The psychologist Jill Boucher of City, University of London has lambasted what she calls “the unthinkingly self-righteous, hypocritical and ultimately damaging political correctness of those who deny that genetic inheritance contributes to academic achievement and hence social status”. Teach First’s suppression of Young’s article contributed to that impression: it was a clumsy and poorly motivated move. (The organisation has since apologised to Young.)
Despite this rhetoric, however, you’d be hard pushed to find a teacher who would question that children arrive at school with differing intrinsic aptitudes and abilities. Some kids pick things up in a flash, others struggle with the basics. This doesn’t mean it’s all in their genes: no one researching genes and intelligence denies that a child’s environment can play a big role in educational attainment. Of course kids with supportive, stimulating families and motivated peers have an advantage, while in some extreme cases the effects of trauma or malnutrition can compromise brain development. But the idea of the child as tabula rasa seems to be something of a straw man.