Wealthy students and educational attainment


Sir, – The recent correspondence from Dr Michael O’Connell (Letters, October 24th) claiming “genes” are what matter most in determining educational attainment is not supported by empirical research internationally.

First, there is a vast body of well-documented peer-reviewed scientific evidence that educational attainment in schools and colleges is strongly influenced by wealth, both directly through investment in quality school and college resources, including good teaching, and indirectly, through private family investment in extracurricular activities and ancillary educational goods and services.

A recent meta-analysis of 19 national US studies over a 50-year period by Reardon and colleagues at Stanford found social class-based inequalities in educational attainment have risen in the US since the 1970s and these inequalities are directly related to income inequalities. Those who own and control significant private wealth will and do use this wealth to advantage their own children, especially through educational enrichment activities outside of school. In other words, egalitarian policies within schools are undermined by fiscal and social policies that promote economic and related inequalities without.

Further recent research by Kaushal, Magnusson and Waldfogel shows this is now a growing policy problem in the US, and other economically polarised societies: they found that families in the top income quintile (richest 20 per cent) are spending almost seven times more per child each year in private educational enrichment activities compared with the poorest 20 per cent.

Second, what makes O’Connell’s assertion unsustainable is that it is based on the controversial claims of Robert Plomin alone, a behavioural psychologist who is a self-professed proponent of genetic determinism. O’Connell fails to point out that being able to construct a polygenic (group of genes) score for someone and show a personality or educational trait with which it is associated (as Plomin does) is simply a correlation coefficient. It does not prove causation. Genotype (genetic inheritance) must not be conflated with phenotype (observable characteristics). Plomin’s scientifically untenable claims must not be used therefore to justify reducing investment in education, especially for students from poorer family backgrounds.

As reviews of Plomin’s work, including in leading peer-reviewed journals like Nature, observe, crude hereditarianism often re-emerges after major advances in biological knowledge.

Researchers like Plomin rely on the (inevitably) limited learning of their own discipline to draw highly speculative inferences and claims from the complex scientific data produced in other disciplines that they do not fully understand, including research in education. They cause controversy by making populist claims (which will sell their books, increase the citations and, sadly, by extension their own ranking and that of their departments) that are not sustainable when subjected to cross-disciplinary investigations. What is concerning about this is that the controversy and unsubstantiated claims also feed into a type of socio-genetic determinism that provides a politically convenient rationalisation for reducing public investment in education, especially for those from less privileged backgrounds.

O’Connell’s letter reminds me of the now infamous statement of the Irish Council of Education in 1960 where it justified opposing free secondary education for all on the grounds that most Irish people were not intelligent enough to benefit from secondary education: “An unqualified scheme of ‘secondary education for all’ would be both financially impractical and educationally unsound. Only a minority would be capable of benefiting from such education and standards would fall”.

History has proven how wrong these so-called experts were. And as Ireland advances with more than 50 per cent of people in higher education, it shows that educational attainment is just that, a matter of attainment, and it is highly resource dependent. – Yours, etc,


UCD School of Education,

Belfield, Dublin 4.