What makes children smart: genes or environment?
Do children from more affluent backgrounds do better in school because they have more resources, or because they’re genetically superior?
In a recent letter to this newspaper Dr Michael O’Connell, associate professor of psychology at University College Dublin, sparked debate and controversy when he claimed that high-performing students do better not predominantly because of wealth, but because they “inherit higher cognitive ability” from their parents.
His letter followed a new study from the Higher Education Authority which showed that students from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to study high-points university courses and earn more within months of graduation.
The findings, which back up nearly 20 years of data from The Irish Times feeder school lists – which measure the proportion of students who progress to third-level by individual school – are not surprising. But why do children from wealthier backgrounds do better?
“Once parental ability is accounted for, social background of their children plays only a very modest role – so long as the threshold into extreme poverty is not crossed – despite the widespread assumption that social background must be decisive in such matters,” O’Connell wrote.
Speaking to The Irish Times, O’Connell says that he is not trying to write off chunks of the population.
“There is greater variability within schools than between schools. The evidence I have seen from geneticists such as Prof Robert Plomin and Dr Emily Smith-Woolley of King’s College London suggests that “public schools” in the UK [the equivalent of fee-paying schools in Ireland] perform well in league tables because schools’ reputations are used to attract higher-ability cohorts the schools themselves aren’t doing anything that special.”