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Genetics, education and intelligence

7:00pm, Tuesday 12 February 2019, Accent Study Centre, 12 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3JA

What are teachers and parents to make of newly emerging debates around genetics and their alleged implications for educating young people?

All of us begin our lives as a single-celled embryo. The DNA in this embryo – our genome, composed of DNA inherited from our parents – is replicated throughout most of the cells of our adult body. Yet the question of the degree to which this DNA affects our behaviour, our aptitudes and our appetites throughout the remainder of our lives has proved contentious and volatile for well over a century.

In his new book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, Robert Plomin – the world’s leading behavioural geneticist – draws upon his 40 years of research, his 800 scientific papers and his longstanding involvement in public and policy debate to argue that our inherited DNA differences are the major systematic force that makes us who we are as individuals. In short, he says, ‘schools matter, but they don’t make a difference’.

What does this controversial claim mean for the idea that education can transform the lives of children? Plomin’s studies point to thousands of DNA differences, which he says each make a tiny statistical contribution to the likelihood of academic success. He claims that DNA is a better predictor of GCSE results than Ofsted ratings and that the better exam scores in selective schools may largely be explained by genetic differences. Some educators have leapt upon this as evidence that grammar schools are unnecessary. But doesn’t it call into question the role played by any school? And how do we feel about Plomin’s suggestion that genetic testing of children to predict their academic potential “will probably happen”?

Do Plomin’s findings represent a decisive victory for nature over nurture or is there any room for dissent? What scope if any do they leave for teachers and parents, or are we just passive bystanders, fooling ourselves that we play a meaningful part in raising younger generations?

Our speaker Sandy Starr will interrogate what Plomin’s provocative statement that ‘Schools matter, but they don’t make a difference’ really means and whether it is justified. Come along and join in the discussion.

Listen to the introductory remarks


Sandy Starr
communications manager at the Progress Educational Trust (PET), a charity which improves choices for people affected by infertility and genetic conditions

Kevin Rooney
a teacher in London and convenor of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum


Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, Robert Plomin, Allen Lane (2018)

Does our DNA define us?, Battle of Ideas 2018 debate, featuring Robert Plomin and Philip Ball.

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