The claim by leading geneticist Robert Plomin that academic success is largely fixed by genes has prompted newspaper headlines such as ‘Top schools add nothing to grades’. In fact, Professor Plomin himself cites research that shows that independent school pupils do have higher GCSE grades even after controlling for socioeconomic background and prior ability.
This significant point is made in the discussion section of a paper of which he was a co-author (Differences in exam performance between pupils attending selective and non-selective schools mirror the genetic differences between them). The study clearly shows the value of independent schools and teaching for over half a million pupils in the UK. Other research confirms these findings.
In 2016, an even larger study by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University concluded that attending an independent school in England is associated with the equivalent of two additional years of schooling by the age of 16 even when controlling for differences such as prior ability, socioeconomic status and gender.
The same research also revealed that an independent education is favourable academically at ages four, eight, ten and 16 and that independent schooling accounts on average for a 0.64 of a GCSE grade increase. At GCSE, independent schools have higher average scores in all subjects.
If independent schools were measured on international PISA outcomes, they would outperform the best European nations and be level with Japan and South Korea. Evidence has long suggested independent school pupils enjoy greater 'academic value added' and relatively higher returns for their education. This 2016 research is unequivocal in supporting that position.
In 2017, quantitative research by leading psychometric test publisher AQR International shows pupils at independent schools have good attainment, wellbeing and behaviour and are more resilient, better at dealing with setbacks and more open to learning as a result. Using a mental toughness model called MTQ48, the study - An Analysis of Mental Toughness at UK Independent Schools - included 9,000 pupils of all ages in England and Scotland.
Prof Plomin has some important things to say about meritocracy and opportunity, which is why I was delighted to invite him to speak at the HMC Conference in October 2019.
Most importantly, he is not saying that your life is predetermined by your genes – that would be overwhelmingly depressing to say the least. Your genetic inheritance may tell you something about who you are today, but it does not tell you about who you might be tomorrow.