Uncomfortable truths.

Something’s been niggling me lately. I’ve not quite been able to put my finger on what it is, but a few weeks ago, it started to pop up to the surface. I was teaching a class of Russian children, trying to explain how to do a lift. The lift involved a smallish child being hoisted to shoulder height by other children holding his legs beneath the knee. It works through a combination of distribution of weight and the core balance and stability of the child being lifted. Unfortunately the children didn’t speak English and the idea of distributed weight was a little too much. And the child in question was as wobbly as a weeble. Except he did fall down (you have to be old to get that one).

Anyway, I wondered, why do some children seem to have ‘natural’ balance and others not? I’m one of the have nots, falling all over the place in yoga, but my sister seems to be able to hoist herself onto a toe nail and read a book without leaning at all. Genes or what?

I wrote some time ago about my concerns with regard to Robert Plomin’s research into the extent to which intelligence is inherited. He claims that for some skills, 70% of achievement might be down to inherited genes – reading for example – but also certain personality traits such as the ability to defer gratification. Such claims are controversial and rightly make us feel uncomfortable – beliefs in superior genes led to eugenics practices across Europe and the US in the 1930s after all. But this is 2015 and Plomin’s work cannot be dismissed easily. In a previous blog post I argued the case that even were it so, the 30% is well worth fighting for. The 30% can be achieved with growth mindsets and environmental opportunities. And that 30% marks the difference between 3 grades at GCSE etc etc. So basically, we should just crack on regardless.

But then I also read a study that claimed that poverty affects the very brain structure of children, inhibiting their learning even before birth. This is not a genetic phenomena, but an environmental one and the researchers suggest that stress chemicals might play a part. These fledgling findings need more exploration, but they suggest that rather than education being a means of lifting children out of poverty, poverty itself inhibits a child’s educational chances. The implications of this for policy makers, are profound.

In 2014, I asked Michael Gove at the Festival of Education how he could claim to champion children from disadvantaged backgrounds when his government had been responsible for putting another 300,000 of them into poverty. The actual figure is now much higher. He evaded the figures, but claimed that education was the answer – that it was our duty as teachers to ensure that our expectations were high enough to ensure that these children rose above their disadvantage and succeeded. They were powerful words. But if it is true that the state of poverty inhibits brain function, then the intense scrutiny we are placed under when Ofsted examines our data for PP children is at best unfair. Governments should be held to account in ensuring that the stresses of poverty are avoided for children. This is a societal problem, not an educational one. The good news seems to be that once the child is lifted out of poverty, brain functions recover. And therefore the message to politicians : eradicate poverty and give us a half decent chance of making a difference.

Of course, none of this will come as a surprise to those teachers working with disadvantaged children all the time. Being hungry, tired, worried don’t aid learning at all. But for years now, we’ve been fed a mantra that good teaching will overcome all. That there is no excuse for children not doing well. That it is a level playing field if we all teach like champs. Well it is not a level playing field. Some children are starting right at the bottom of the hill. I’m not suggesting we should leave them there, but it’s time we recognised that they might need longer to get up – they might need more of a helping hand. They might need more than one chance at success.

Am I saying we should give up on children because they happen to be poor? No, of course not. But I’m saying we need to have a grown up conversation about the demands being placed on teachers and the pressures being placed on children. At the very least, politicians must stop assuming that if they are punitive enough, teachers will make up for the impact of their cuts on the poorest in our society.

Teachers in this country have taken Dweck’s growth mindset theory to their very hearts, because it reinforces the intentions we all have when we go into teaching – that we can help any child to succeed. That there is always a way. We have heard and responded to the beauty of ‘not yet’ instead of ‘I can’t’. And we have done this because we care and we want to make a difference. But give us a break – we may well be able to overcome the genetic hurdles placed in our way. But should we also have to overcome those created by our society and by our own politicians?

20 thoughts on “Uncomfortable truths.

  1. Hi, there is a lot of research and evidence that a key driver to success in schools is the income level of the household (along with the educational level of the parents). It is not even the poorest in the all the areas of capital income matters – from having food on the table and a warm, quiet bed where children can get sleep, to having low stress in the household because parent or parents are not worries about paying the next bill, to the capital of going to a museum or show or the zoo to expand horizons to having the books, internet, play dough or felt pens in order to engage in homework – as well as the wider circles of aspiration that you might then move in.

    Pasi Salberg in his book Finnish Lessons says (with apologies for misquoting as I cannot place my hand on the book) – you cannot solve the problems of educational inequality without tackling the problems of societal inequality.

    Most (if not all) politicians will never have been in the cases of extreme poverty we have seen in the last few years with the numbers of children in houses below the breadline increasing rapidly, the expansion in food-banks, the crazy rises in rents and house prices and the drop in wages for the most vulnerable and even if you have had a 2% pay rise that’s very different when you are on £10,000 a year or £150,000 a year.

    For all Gove’s words about high expectations – and of course most teachers have high expectations of most children – without the basis of Maslow’s needs being secure these children (and their teachers and schools) are fighting with one hand behind their backs – and whilst education may be a route out of poverty it does not take away the pangs of hunger.

  2. It’s good that this issue of the environment of the child has surfaced. A concern for the nutrition of the child, safe play and learning spaces , support for the imagination and the love of learning is the central concern of NHS ( soon to be Local Govt. ) Health Visitors . These professionals with some of us NHS GPs are only too well aware of the need to improve the life chances of many children through environmental change – where the environment is taken to include the psycho-social environment as well as the built environement and the green infra-structure of outr towns and cities. . Sometime soon teachers need to form an alliance with the new Institute of Health Visiting to develop this thinking and campaign for change. We might get further faster is we work together – Teachers with Health Visitors and GPs interested in Public Health !

    1. I am glad you make this point, Malcolm, because I have found that the developmental needs of a number of children I have worked (dyslexia, dyspraxia, ASD, attention/concentration problems, physical difficulties with writing, sitting still etc) with fall precisely between the two stools. Neither schools nor doctors seem particularly aware of the nature of some of these issues, willing to take responsibility or equipped to deal with them. Some of these children get passed round from one professional to another for a while for short-term oversight or assessment but from what I have seen it tends to remain at the level of lipservice in terms of response and there is no engaged professional conversation going on.

      Perhaps the new Institute of Health Visiting you mention (which I have not heard of) will be able to address this… I myself have tried for some years to connect these two fields of education and health by talking to people but have found both sides locked in their own professional boxes, unable to engage in a professional exchange. I remember some years ago talking to a consultant at Gt Ormond St about this. He was the one who spoke of the two stools. Unfortunately in many cases the ongoing situation continues to leave many affected children in the hands of increasingly desperate mothers.

  3. I have long argued that Gove’s ‘no-excuses’ model – that all children can achieve arbitrary benchmarks (even go to Russel Group unis) as long as they’re aspirational and have ‘good’ teachers – lets the Government off the hook regarding tackling poverty. His attitude veered on blaming the poor for their predicament (remember his remark about food bank users having made wrong decisions).

  4. We can’t change the world from our classrooms, we can resist those who would defend and extend inequality through schooling and curricular structures. I’ve started a new blog research.english on behalf of NATE. research1english.wordpress.com

  5. Debra – We should beware of ‘neuromyths’. See this Guardian article


    For more on the issues you raise I refer you to my book, ‘Learning Matters’


    and my website


    You are right that the issues you raise in your post are both important and uncomfortable. In my book (Parts 1 & 5) I argue the case for ‘plastic intelligence’, which directly addresses the discomfort. Section C 5.2 is all about your post. You can also read it here.


    Developmental potential applies to all children including those born into deprived backgrounds. If a child’s brain is ‘irrevocably shaped’ in the first three years of life then schooling won’t have much impact and spending a lot of taxpayer’s money on it will be in vain. This is a lazy and dangerous belief that lacks scientific evidence and validity.

    It relates to my study of Mossbourne Academy that forms a major section of my book. If the neuroscience is right then Mossbourne’s excellent exam results and progression to university of children from severely deprived homes (a high proportion of the intake) shouldn’t be happening, and ‘impaired synapse connectivity’ in early years should be trumping any pedagogic intervention to limit educational attainment.

    The fact is that despite all the developments in neurobiology and ever increasing knowledge of which bits of brains light up in MRI scanners when you are thinking different thoughts, we know virtually nothing about the physical processes of the simplest levels of cognition, let alone the enduring mystery of consciousness.

    It is these latter that are the true currency of education and learning. Be very sceptical of neuroscience applied to the classroom.

    1. I am and remain sceptical about most things, including some of the ‘successes’ of academies and take your point completely. But I do think that we ought to have an open and honest debate about the reality of some of the expectations placed on teachers. Many of the places who claim to do well by the most disadvantaged children, for example, have high numbers of exclusions. And even the uniform policies exclude some poorer parents. As far as this study goes, it would be a falsehood to call it a neuromyth – those are rumours which have no basis in real research. Goswami has done an excellent job of uncovering them. What seems to be the case here, is the impact of stress and possibly diet on children and those findings have been supported in other, smaller studies too.

      1. I am no supporter of academies. This is from Section C2.6 in my book.

        According to an article in the Guardian of 19 November 2013,


        “It’s around noon at a popular and successful Academy School. Through the glass walls of the classrooms children can be seen with their heads down over their work. Open a door and they will all jump to attention and stand silently, shirts buttoned to the top, ties neatly pulled up under pinstripe blazers. Tight discipline is something of a feature in many of the sponsored academies of north London.
        Strict dress codes, daily uniform checks and long lists of rules about the different types of detention have won praise from some parents, but others believe it has gone too far.
        At another nearby academy the behaviour policy says students are not allowed to go to the toilet between lessons or visit a local shop on the way home.
        In another London Academy there is a five-stage ‘behaviour improvement path’ that begins with 20-minute detentions for minor matters such as not filling in a year planner properly, or bringing the wrong equipment, and escalates to exclusion for persistent rule-breaking or more serious offences.”
        A parent is quoted, “They are all Academies around here or are run on similar lines. There’s only one school that isn’t, and it’s hugely oversubscribed. We’re being given no choice about how our children are educated. Why is it only in poor areas that children are being made to do this?”

        Part 4 of my book also makes explains on the basis of evidence that the success of Mossbourne Academy is made possible by the Hackney system of Admissions based on ‘fair banding’ driven by CATs tests.

        Of course children bring all sorts of cultural and home-based challenges to school but these do not cause or limit low attainment and, given sufficient investment in teaching quality and resources, these can be overcome by developmental approaches to teaching and learning.

        Dweck, like Shayer and Adey and other contributors and educationalists whose work is described in my book, is right.

        See this post on my website.


    2. There is no doubt of the power of the neuromyths and the image on the guardian link is one of the peaches that has been overused and I also agree that what we really know about the complexity of brain function and its impact on emergent qualities like intelligence is still very small. Having read the study cited I am not sure that it shows a causal link between brain size at birth at poverty but rather a correlative link – also there does not seem to be data on parental brain size and other hereditary factors and there is also no correlative link between brain size and intelligence (though there are disputes over the measures of such things).

      However, there is lots of research on the impact of the stress of poverty on achievement and on the impact of poverty on the ‘capital’ of children in all areas economic, cultural and social. A good school does make a significant different to the educational achievement of the child but poverty and deprivation are still leaden weights for many children. As Janet points out saying that, “with a good school and high expectations it will all be OK” is one of the many lies that Gove promulgated during his time in office. I top back to Salberg’s comments. This I think is the real key point of Debra’s post.

      As for Mossbourne – it does OK even well but it is not the shining example that Gove and Wilshaw made it out to be – it is quite different in its intake to other local schools and does not take a representative sample of children from feeder primaries and it had significantly higher levels of resources (let along the very expensive brand new school). Have a look at https://disidealist.wordpress.com/2014/07/25/mossbourne-academy-the-model-for-us-all/

  6. the Nature study does not show causation. There is no reason to think it’s found anything other than the usual correlations between a ) brain size and intelligence (see http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2512128) and b) intelligence and income (http://www.emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-content/uploads/Intelligence-and-socioeconomic-success-A-meta-analytic-review-of-longitudinal-research.pdf) These are both well-replicated robust findings. Therefore finding a brain size-income gradient should be of no surprise to anyone. There’s no obvious reason to think that the differences observed are due to environmental effects.

    1. Except that when the children are lifted out of poverty there is an improvement both in size and cognitive function. Which suggests it is environmental and not fixed. Sorry for the delay in replying by the way – been working away.

      1. are you referring to http://www.who.int/management/country/mex/RoleofCashConditionalCashTransferMexicosOportunidades.pdf?

        Sure, but there’s no reason to think that results from Mexico, where poverty is both far more endemic and severe, will generalise to the US, and even less reason to think they’ll generalise to the UK.

        In Sweden – more comparable to the UK – large income shocks do not seem to improve long-term outcomes https://files.nyu.edu/dac12/public/Wp1060.pdf

        1. Although the basic income experiments in the US and Canada did lead to improved educational outcomes, so it’s not just Mexicans whose brains can grow!

      2. again, I don’t think experiments from the 70s are the best basis for current policymaking; parental educational attainment has very considerably increased since then, amongst other things

        http://econweb.ucsd.edu/~gdahl/papers/children-and-EITC.pdf (all the good education papers are written by economists) does find a more recent causal effect of income increases to child achievement, but the effect size is fairly small (a benefit of 6% of a standard deviation for $1000 extra income). This estimate seems to fit quite well with the rest of the literature.

        I would suggest that on the balance of the evidence, just as education cannot cure poverty, eliminating poverty is not the cure for education. Eliminating poverty is worthwhile for its own sake.

        1. I can’t disagree with that last statement. Though of course they are not mutually exclusive. The point, however, is that education cannot eliminate poverty, which is the convenient assumption that governments make. I’m also not convinced that the date of an experiment or idea renders it irrelevant. There has been a lot of discussion in the past five years about the potential benefits of a basic income policy in the US.

  7. I appreciate your post, Deborah, and agree we need to respond to the situation. I am not sure what is going on in teacher training these days but politicians do need to be encouraged to move on from this-or-that, nature-nurture and similar arguments. That is presumably the universe where Gove is still stuck and provides politicians with a useful basis for their simplistic solutions but does not address deeper issues. After all, we have moved on from genetics to epigenetics and from the genome to the connectome so we have become even more complex and mysterious but I’m not sure how much of this has come into our thinking. I would like to see developmental issues, for example, studied in teacher training. These certainly raise deep questions about our social, chemical and societal environment as well as our relationships, individual needs and responses. Here it is not just a matter of “well-being” but also of primary well-functioning at a neurophysiological level as a prerequisite for psycho-social well-being and “readiness for school” (ie being able to respond healthily to the demands of formal schooling). THen we might appreciate that education is not meant to be about “cohorts”, boxes and targets but about unique human beings (persons), meaningful relationships and developing their unique contribution in this world for their own and the common good (a major challenge, admittedly, given how crazy the world has become!).

    1. Paul, I would love to see development issues studies in teacher training too … and I am a teacher trainer. I do try to get some of this into the very short amount of space we have on our PGCE along with research critical undertaking and neuromyths but the pressure from above (and given the election result I cannot see it changing) is (i) to have more “subject knowledge” stuff (ii) to push instrumental behavioural management strategies (iii) to get it out of the hands of the ‘enemies of promise’ in universities and into teaching schools and (iv) to not worry about teachers being qualified at all ….

      Sorry if this sounds a little desperate … this is where I am since Thursday!

      1. I do sympathise with the effect of the outrageous demands you describe. The key word is perhaps “pressure” from above. It is of course way past time for teachers and parents to stand up together and challenge it and the ideology behind it. Perhaps the new landscape after last Thursday’s result will now make that even more obvious. For the sake of children, parents and teachers we need to be tough on such pressure and the causes of such pressure, to coin a phrase!

        Ironically it could save everyone a lot of trouble if the neuro-developmental issues I referred to (simply because Debra began with the issue of balance) were understood, recognized and addressed in mainstream schools – instead of leading to difficulties all round, frustration or “failure” – precisely because they have such a profound practical impact upon a child’s educational “performance” potential via balance, coordination, posture, attention, concentration, perceptions, comprehension, self-regulation and behavioural responses as well as the ability to sit still, change focus, copy from the board, control a pencil, write, follow a text…etc etc., as I have myself witnessed in primary and secondary.

        (Perhaps we should start a conversation about this in teacher training!)

  8. The following is taken from Section 1.2 of my book, ‘Learning Matters’, which was published in January 2015.
    The book argues the case for a developmental approach to education. It is based on the idea that attainment, in all its forms and contexts, is founded on general abilities and that it is the job of schools to recognise and to promote the development of these underlying abilities. At the same time a school should be maximising students’ attainment in their academic studies and nurturing the physical, artistic and social skills that grow out of these talents and abilities.
    Although the basis for the routine work of Educational Psychologists for more than half a century and the current CATs based admissions systems for hundreds of state funded schools since the inception of the Academies programme, the general intelligence factor ‘g’ is a concept about which much heat has been generated.
    Many left inclined educationalists still begin any discussion in this area with an IQ denial statement of some form. I am happy just to accept the fact that cognitive ability, regardless of arguments about its philosophical significance, can be readily measured by relatively simple, albeit increasingly sophisticated, tests and that their results have very high correlations with life outcomes and especially with performance in the education system.
    Are there other sorts of intelligence? We certainly don’t all think the same way, which is why standardised cognitive ability tests have three sub-test components: verbal, quantitative and non-verbal. Although most individuals score similarly on each component, some do not, revealing differences in cognitive strategies and abilities in the three areas.
    Howard Gardner went much further with his theory of multiple intelligences (1983), which is an attractive, popular and frequently quoted rebuttal of the concept of general intelligence. Gardner proposes seven distinct and independent ‘intelligences’ with two, ‘linguistic intelligence’ and logical-mathematical intelligence’ roughly corresponding with the qualities measured by Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs). The other five, although claimed to be independent by Gardner, in fact correlate to a greater or lesser degree with the first two. To the extent that they correlate highly, they are more clearly understood as components of ‘g’. Those that correlate more weakly seem to be more like ‘talents’; further examples of the rich diversity of human variation to be encouraged and celebrated, but not so strongly predictive of general exam performance and broader life outcomes.
    Chapter 12 of ‘Bad Education – Debunking Myths in Education’ (2012) edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon, addresses the myths of both ‘intelligence fixed at birth’ and ‘multiple intelligences’.
    The arguments in ‘Learning Matters’ are based on the validity of general intelligence as set out by Adey and others but with the insistence that although resilient, such general intelligence is plastic and that its development should be the priority of all good schooling.
    ‘Plastic’ general intelligence is a significantly different concept to ‘fixed intelligence conferred at birth’. It opens the door to the development of the intellect of all children (and indeed adults) through good quality education. However, much education practice commonly believed to be ‘good’ is in fact ‘bad’ and does not result in cognitive growth. That is a theme that runs throughout ‘Learning Matters’.
    The academic arguments of the IQ deniers come down to the complex statistics of multi-variable correlations called factor analysis. These are the grounds on which Steven Jay Gould attempted to discredit ‘general intelligence’ in his much quoted 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man.
    In our modern society, with its rich literary, scientific and technological culture, proficiency in manipulating complex information and problem solving within this culture correlates strongly with putting food on the table, a roof over the head and maximising any surplus wealth that can be acquired. Hunter-gatherer societies clearly produce different correlations. Value judgements about the qualities needed to prosper in different cultures that so obsess sociologists seem to me to be increasingly pointless as global capitalism spreads, promoting increasingly commonly shared concepts of meritocracy and opportunity founded in the modern commercial and industrial world.
    There is no dispute that scores on cognitive ability tests correlate strongly with exam results and future life outcomes in our society and culture. ‘Learning Matters’ is about recognising the plastic nature of intelligence and the opportunity it creates for enriching the lives of individuals and the quality of society through the promotion of cognitive development through national education systems.
    The fact that a minority of individuals can exploit diverse talents in commercialised sport, the entertainment industries and the cult of celebrity, that are not directly related to cognitive ability, in no way invalidates this central truth about the value of quality schooling.
    I think we should be very careful about linking brain size to any kind of intelligence. As I have argued in my previous post, human cognition and consciousness is still a profound mystery. I strongly suspect it has more to do with the sophistication of individual cognitive ‘software’ than numbers and/or connectivity of neurons. We should remember that, on average, women’s brains are 10 percent smaller than men’s. No-one now argues that woman are less intelligent than men as a result of this.

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