Intelligence: Nature v Nurture and its implications in schools

I recall once having a bitter argument with a fellow teacher about expectations for children. I claimed that we couldn’t expect our children from a state school with a huge percentage of military children (and the transience that brings); with a large number of children from poorer homes; and a huge percentage of children with special educational needs to do as well as children from public schools or even from state schools in areas of high income. He was determined that we should have the same expectations for them and that I was doing them down by not doing so.

Arguing that the children I taught were intellectually inferior to those in public schools was not the objective. The objective was to say that, ‘yes we should aspire for these children to achieve at the same level as children from stable home lives where financially they can benefit from all that life offers however aspiration is different from expectation.’ An aspiration is something that you keep quietly as your aim while providing expectations that stretch children but ultimately are achievable. To do otherwise just leads children down the path of continual disappointment, sapping them of the one thing they need most to succeed – confidence.

It was with interest then that I listened to a recent Radio 4 show about the inheritability of intelligence. The researcher involved was keen to differentiate his research from eugenics although he admitted that it did fit into that box but he hoped without the inherent discrimination eugenics is famous for. His research seemed to indicate that 30 – 40% of our intelligence could be heritable from our parents, the rest was a result of nurture.

Teachers, I feel, would in no way be surprised by this. We have all sat in the parent / teacher meetings and thought, “ah ha that’s where she gets it!” Of course what teachers cannot divine is whether students are like their parents purely through nurture or through nature.

The researcher raised the question if 30 – 40% of intelligence is heritable through your parents should society and schools in particular differentiate from the very beginning based on the intelligence of parents? Should students in reception be put into sets in order to give those children who had less of a good start intellectually the chance to fully nurture the remaining 60 – 70% of their intelligence? By doing so enabling the less intelligent children to have the best start possible while enabling the more intelligent to be pushed and stretched and not let them, as often happens, from day one be bored.

The idea of pigeon holing children from day one, sits uncomfortably with me. Children develop and grow at such different rates, is it fair to say to a child from the age of five that, “from now on you are in the thick group.” All children recognise setting, no matter how hard you try and claim that all classes are equal, they recognise the inherent and blatant truth – they are not. No matter how hard you try and avoid the term ‘bottom set’ this is what children will call it.

Yet as a teacher I have seen hundreds of times the benefit of intervention and the earlier the intervention the better. If nothing else, children who are taught in small groups or one to one grow in confidence. Confidence, I feel, is one of the greatest skills a child needs to access education. If, therefore, we can instil a child with confidence and help them to develop their remaining 60-70% of intelligence, surely the earlier the better.

That therefore leads me onto the next dilemma if 30-40% of intelligence is heritable then theoretically this is 30-40% that intervention can have no impact on. Is it fair therefore to assume that all children will develop at the same rate? Should we have the same expectations for all children? All children are expected to be a Level 1 in Maths and English by the end of their second year in school – age 6. By the age of 10 they are expected to be Level 4 in both. There are no official progress expectations. Schools are judged on their ability to meet floor targets (the percentage of children achieving these levels). The floor targets are usually around 60-65% of children.

You could argue that basic skill levels should be expected of ALL children and yes schools should be judged on their ability to achieve them. While I agree that floor targets do motivate schools to push all students to achieve the target levels, I do not agree that this is fair on all children.

For the children who work hard and are taught well and whose home life and intelligence is average then they will achieve expected levels. For those children who are intellectually equal to the first child but whose home life is utterly chaotic and attendance is variable, as perhaps they have to get themselves up and dressed at the age of 6 in order to get to school then it is a little tough to add that pressure to the children. On the other hand you could argue that if the children are intelligent enough, then we should not lower our expectations of them purely because of their home life. On this one, I think you have to take it case by case.

What about the child who strives to do well, spends hours on their homework, is taught well and gets plenty of parental support yet still struggles to make progress – is it fair to put them under the further pressure of achieving a target that is ultimately unachievable by the end of Year 1 or Year 6?

What about the child who finds school a doddle, they barely listen, rush their homework and yet still hit Level 1 and Level 4 targets easily – is it fair to not stretch these children by giving them the same target? Yes, as a 10 year old you can sit an English and Maths exam that enables students to achieve a Level 6 (technically the level expected by 14 year olds). There are however no floor targets for these levels, schools do not sink or swim based on these more challenging levels. A school could never get a child to sit these higher level exams and there would be no consequences for them.

A few years ago I had dealings with a school and their data. What I read utterly shocked me. Their headline figure was 96% of all students achieved a Level 4 in their end of Year 6 exams. Believe me this is a pretty amazing figure, all schools aspire to achieve this. Digging into their data however it rapidly became clear that not all was well in the Garden of Eden.

I looked at the progress made by the children while at the school. The school I was looking at was a middle school (children aged 9 – 13). The guideline for expected progress is 1 level a year (from age 9 – 13)- so these children should have made 4 levels progress in their time in the school. The children however were making in the region of 2 levels. They had joined the school with the majority close to a Level 4 so two years later when they sat their Year 6 exams they had exceeded Level 4 – hence why 96% had achieved a Level 4+.

They therefore started Year 7 already a year or so ahead of the game. When they left the school aged 13 the majority hit Level 6 as the government expects. When you looked however at their progress between Year 5 and Year 8 they had not made the 4 levels progress expected despite the on the surface glowing figures.

This ultimately is my problem with the arms race that currently exists within education – in order for a school to prove how good it is, floor targets based purely on achievement keep going up and indeed only hitting the floor targets is considered by many schools a failure yet there is no official charting of the real data needed to show how effective a school is – progress.


Take this example. Which child has achieved the greater success?
Child A
– By the end of Year 2 was a Level P (the level just before Level 1) – technically two years behind their peers.
– By the end of Year 6 was a Level 3 – technically now a year behind their peers.
Child B
– By the end of Year 2 was a Level 2 – technically a year ahead of their peers
– By the end of Year 6 was a Level 4 – technically at the level expected of their peer group.
Child A currently would be a negative piece of data in a school while Child B would be a positive. Which child however has seen more success? Child A – in fact Child B has actually regressed when compared to their peers.

What about the child who makes 2 levels progress not the expected 3 and is a Level 3 instead of a Level 4 but in the last three years has been removed by Social Services from their parents and moved foster homes and schools 5 times since then? Has this child failed by not making ‘guideline progress’ or hitting ‘expected levels’?

What about the child who is clearly highly intelligent, who comes from a stable loving environment who makes just expected progress and reaches just expected levels? Has this child been successful or failed?

So the question then is should an entirely new system be created whereby students’ intelligence on starting school should define expected progress and achievement? Or should the government focus more on progress than on achievement when judging schools and individuals? Or is it fair to differentiate at all in expectations given everyone will be fighting at the same level for jobs in the future?

One thing is certainly true, the system for judging children when they are very young isn’t working. It forces schools to play the system in order to appear to be successful. The impact this playing the system has on a child in the future is huge. Another thing is also certain, the group of people involved in restructuring the system cannot be led by a man with no educational background other than his own experiences of private school. What appears to be semi-dictatorial powers must be taken out of the hands of Michael Gove and given to the real experts, the ones whose voices are not heard unless they agree with what Gove suggests.

See also my other blog What Will Happen to M.E.? about my experiences as an M.E. patient


About Karen Ironside

I have had some incredible opportunities in life. Although born in Ireland, I moved to London when I was 18. At 23 I moved to Poland where I stayed for just under 5 years. During this time I was lucky enough to get the chance to really get to know Poland and to be adopted by a Polish family. I then returned to England, where I trained to be a teacher. Not long after I met the man who was to become my husband. We moved a lot as he was in the army, when he left we moved to Stratford upon Avon (where Shakespeare is from). Until moving to India, I had been a Head of English for the last 6 years in two middle schools. During this time, I became incredibly ill having been misdiagnosed when I had a totally treatable illness. Consequently, I was lucky not to die. This year of ill-health gave me the time to reflect on who I was and what I wanted from my life. So, when the opportunity to move to India came up not long after I was properly diagnosed - how could we turn it down? My husband now works for a UK car company and we live in Pune. We will be here for at least 3 years having arrived May 2015. I teach once a week in a very rural high school outside of Pune. It is some of the most challenging teaching of my life but also some of the most rewarding. I started writing a blog a few months after I became ill. Both as a means of informing friends and family about what was going on and in hindsight as a means of helping me process the new reality I found myself in. I continue to write for the same reason.
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I have lots of opinions, some you may agree with, some not! I would love to know what you think (good or bad).

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