Genetics and education (BBC Radio 4)It was Dominic Cummings' long essay Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities ("leaked" by the Guardian!) that sparked this controversy. See fun Endnote and a few references to this blog.
Duration: 43 minutes
First broadcast: Wednesday 30 October 2013
For centuries philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the question of nature versus nurture. Increasingly and for some controversially, the science of behavioural genetics is starting to come up with some of the answers. The argument is perhaps at its most sensitive when applied to education. When it was revealed that Education Secretary Michael Gove's outgoing special advisor, Dominic Cummings, called for education policy to incorporate the science behind genes and cognitive development he broke a modern taboo and there was a predictable outcry. In a wide ranging paper Mr Cummings cited the work of Professor Robert Plomin who's about to publish a book with psychologist Dr Kathryn Asbury which calls for "genetically sensitive" schooling. It's based on a study of how genes and environment have shaped the development of over 10,000 twins who were studied from birth to early adulthood. The scientists say their work is about probability not prophecy and can be used to personalise education and create better outcomes for all, but fears of genetic determinism are deeply ingrained. How should we use genetics in education? Science is a very long way from knowing exactly which genes influence individual differences in learning but as knowledge in this field advances that time will surely come. We already use genetics to screen for various medical conditions, so why not for learning abilities? And what happens if, or when, the science of genetics becomes so powerful that we can identify different populations that are endowed with different genetic make-ups that we believe are more or less desirable? Is that just a scientific inevitability that we have to come to terms with, or does it open the door to eugenics? How should we use the science of genetics?
Combative, provocative and engaging debate chaired by Michael Buerk. With Michael Portillo, Melanie Phillips, Giles Fraser and Matthew Taylor. DR KATHRYN ASBURY - York University, co-author of 'G is for Genes', DR ANDERS SANDBERG - Research Fellow at the 'Future of Humanity Institute', Oxford University, DR DAVID KING - Founder and Director of the campaign group 'Human Genetics Alert', STEVE DAVY - Teacher at the Wroxham school, Potter's Bar.
Dominic Cummings, Genius or Menace? (Guardian): Dominic Cummings is arguably the most brilliant and most controversial special adviser in the coalition. Long seen as a driving force in the Department for Education, he demanded more from a bureaucracy that Conservatives believe was temperamentally sympathetic to Labour.Ideas and scientific evidence matter, especially (hopefully!) in the long run.
Some see him as a menace, given to frank exchanges with civil servants and, on occasions, journalists. Others see him as a genius, consistently driving higher standards, clearer exams and taking on the "blob", the Tory term of abuse to describe the educational establishment.
Born and educated in Durham, he secured a first in ancient and modern history from Oxford and worked for Iain Duncan Smith when he was leader of the opposition. In his portrait of the coalition, In It Together, Matthew d'Ancona describes Cummings as being "mild mannered by temperament except when he was not. His volcanic outbursts had astonished Duncan Smith in 2002 when he had briefly been the party's director of strategy". Post-election, Andy Coulson, director of communications, blocked Cummings' appointment as a government adviser on the basis that he might be too independent and a disruptive force. But Michael Gove continued to rely on him from afar and, when Coulson resigned, the education secretary rapidly appointed him.
His 250-page screed sprawls across a vast canvas about the future, education, Britain's place in the world and disruptive forces ahead. Quite frankly, much will pass over the average reader's head. It is either mad, bad or brilliant – and probably a bit of all three.
Keynes: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas."