Getting quite animated today as I read through an old Mike Baker article about a topic that has been in the mind of every parent at some time or another.
It’s a controversial issue; do genes determine how well children perform in the classroom?
In other words, are our children’s academic successes pre-determined; more or less set in stone from the earliest age, un-improvable by the school system?
In a recent newspaper interview, Chris Woodhead, former Chief Inspector of Schools in England, put forward some pretty uncompromising opinions on the matter. He alluded to the fact that any childs academic ability is, on the whole, a product of their inherent genes and family background.
In essence, Woodhead argues that middle class children are likely to have parents in white collar occupations – lawyers, lecturers, bankers. Therefore their children have “better genes” and are more likely to achieve. His words, not mine.
Some of Woodhead’s quotes make for pretty eyebrow-raising reading, it’s worth looking at the Guardian article for some of the juiciest but to me Chris Woodhead sounds like a man who’s given up on kids. Woodhead was an English teacher in his previous incumbent before becoming the controversial voice in education that he is today.
“I’ve taught, and I can still remember trying to interest children who had no interest whatsoever in English” says Chris. ”They didn’t want to be in the classroom. If I’m honest I didn’t want them to be there either because they were disruptive to children.”
“What was the point?” he added. ”If we had had a system whereby those young people were able to follow practical educational courses that gave them a sense of worth, a sense that they weren’t dull and less intelligent than others, it would have been much better for them.”
As much as I’m in favour of a return for practical and vocational courses as a subject choice, I don’t think kids should be written off as quickly as this. Those who struggle with the, let’s face it, difficult language of Shakespeare, the highly symbolic prose of Carol Anne Duffy or the frankly confusing narrative of Wuthering Heights shouldn’t be packed off to the DT room like sub-standard cattle branded with the Golden Arches; they should be given more attention or shown where to get more help. If they choose to go down the practical route then so be it, but they should never be denied the right to pursue academic subjects. Teachers should be given the support to teach skills and attitudes that some kids just don’t get in their home life.
The way Woodhead talks about genes being a pre-determinate of academic success makes me think of some kind of Orwellian dystopia; where children are separated at birth by the measure of their parents professional success – some awarded the pleasure of academia, the rest carted off to the metalwork shop.
But what if it wasn’t that the kids didn’t want to learn, or couldn’t be reached? What if it was the way you taught them, Chris?