21 May 2007

Genes and opportunity

Most people would agree that one of the key political issues is this:
How can talented children from poor backgrounds have the same opportunity as those from wealthier backgrounds?

To assess where we are in terms of this goal, we can look at data on social mobility. The problem is, the data can only be interpreted in conjunction with data about heritability of talent.

Say, for the sake of argument, that “ability” is 100% inherited and has no environmental component. Then, in a society that was perfect in terms of the above goal, so that social position was perfectly correlated with ability, would we not find that people never moved from the class they were born into?

Therefore, does it not follow that you cannot assess whether we have the “correct” level of mobility without taking into account heritability? In which case, are not the arguments of both left1 and right2, to the effect that there is “clearly a problem” because so few from the lower classes rise up the hierarchy, entirely specious?

1. Alan Johnson: "There is still a long way to go. A child who is not on free school meals is twice as likely to get five good GCSEs as one who is."
2. David Willetts: "Just 2% of children at grammar schools are on free school meals when those low income children make up 12% of the school population in their areas."


Other articles
Not Saussure on mobility
Stumbling & Mumbling on talent
Conservative Party Reptile on grammar schools
Daily Telegraph on the distribution of ability
The Spectator on David Willetts
Stumbling & Mumbling on nature vs nurture
Peter Hitchens on grammar schools

8 comments:

Nigel Sedgwick said...

Hat tip to Not Saussure for the link to here. And I like your blogroll.

To the question "how can talented children from poor backgrounds have the same opportunity as those from wealthier backgrounds", there are, of course, two extremes: help those of a poor background, or deprive those from wealthier backgrounds. Surprisingly, the latter does not seem out of court.

There is, perhaps, too much of a binary distinction: poorer backgrounds versus wealthier backgrounds, or perhaps it is a tertiary distinction, with all those in between being lumped together, and then excluded from this particular question. Surely there is a continuum of ability and it's origin is not all genetic. The application of effort (by teachers, pupils and parents) all helps.

The problem strikes be as being, on average, one of expecting more for the currently lowish (and somewhat misdirected) effort put in, and rarely getting it.

From the Post Office on Friday, I found an interesting little brochure from HM Treasury, entitled "Budget 2007". From this I learn that around 13% (£77billion) of government expenditure is on education, and over 27% (£161billion) is on social protection (which is not fully defined, but includes tax credits).

I wonder if we spent more on education, we might need to spend less on social protection. Or perhaps more people might be well enough educated to see that a least some of the "need" is not need, but "want", and want in the minds only of a subset of society, not all of which is in need.

Returning to the missing in-between people, perhaps many of those would like to spend more on the education of their children than the government chooses to do, and perhaps they have some modest ability to do so. Perhaps they would also like that education to be provided during school time, not least so they can play and otherwise interact with their children outside that time. But are such in-between people not prevented from doing this by loosing, immediately, several thousand pounds per year in taxpayers' funds (which is also their own money or rightful share). This is the money that would be spent on their children's secondary education if they only choose that "education" dictated by and made available from the state.

Thus, we look to have a system where government policy purposefully prevents the better education of many children, through actively inhibiting additional expenditure, above that thought an adequate minimum by the state (and who would claim it is more than a minimum). This is done, at least as I see it, to avoid contributing this minimum appropriate amount of money towards the education of children from wealthier backgrounds.

In this continuing "class war", it is the largely classless in-between people that lose most. And, of course, this includes those who would be in-between, if only they got the education appropriate for that combination of their interests, genes, enthusiasm, or just plain hard work.

Best regards

Heraklites said...

Interesting points.

Some follow-up questions:

- Say we had no state education, but that ability was largely inherited. Should society intervene in cases where parents are able, but unwilling, to finance their children's education? And how? Is there a way of doing so which violates everyone's liberty as little as possible?

- If society intervenes in the "too little education provided spontaneously by parents" problem by providing education on the state, what are the differences likely to be in what is taught, given there are bound to be differences between the incentives of parents and the state?

- In particular, a parent is likely to want their own child to do as well as possible compared to other children. Or at least, a parent is likely to want their child to exploit its particular strengths. What, by contrast, is society likely to want? Does society want society to be stratified according to ability? Is that what it sees the purpose of education as (partly) being? If so, then what is all the talk of "fairness" about?

Nigel Sedgwick said...

Heraklites poses some follow-up questions:

Say we had no state education, but that ability was largely inherited. Should society intervene in cases where parents are able, but unwilling, to finance their children's education? And how? Is there a way of doing so which violates everyone's liberty as little as possible?

There are many reasons for being rich and for being poor, and ability in schoolwork and other learning is, though important and indicative, only one of them. Also, inheritance comes from two parents and is a very complicated process. In this country, I cannot imagine the actuality of no state contribution to education. As I've already posted, hard work is a partial substitute for (academic) brilliance: and so it continues for the whole of life. So, I don't like the question, and see little benefit in addressing a question on this topic that is too distant from reality.

However, I do agree that children should be helped somewhat, where parents are unable (or unwilling) to finance their education. And also there should be help where parents are unwilling to fund their children to obtain the education that best suits.

As I see it, the main issue is money: money to pay for the education of children whose parents cannot or will not fund it.

[Note aside. There is also the issue of child labour, though not much in the UK. For that, help should be given to parents so that their children are given sufficient time to be educated, rather than being forced to work below their level.]

However, the primary responsibility for bringing up children should remain with parents, most of whom do an adequate to excellent job (with parental performance not being dominated by what money they have available).

The simplest approach, to me, is to ensure every child and young person has at least some useful limit level of funding to be spent as best can be on their education. This can go on for some time, say up to the age of 25, through formal full-time education, apprenticeship, part-time education, etc. It's also important to realise that one educational plan does not fit everyone: people develop at different rates, they have difference aspirations, and are best suited by different educational approaches. In particular, a mix of education and work is far more appropriate for many young people than is continuing full-time education.

If society intervenes in the "too little education provided spontaneously by parents" problem by providing education on the state, what are the differences likely to be in what is taught, given there are bound to be differences between the incentives of parents and the state?

In most things, the state is too prescriptive and inflexible, compared to the alternatives: education no less than others.

It is important to separate two things: (i) funding the education of children whose parents lack the ability or inclination to pay; (ii) deciding what education is appropriate for each child. Personally, I see a role for the state in the first of these, and no particular reason for it to be involved (more than minimally) in the second.

My view of the fairest approach is for everyone to be taxed, in accordance with ability to pay, for all the societal needs to be provided by government. Then, on education, the same level of (financial) support should be available to everyone, which should be some minimal level that society (through elections, referenda, etc) agrees everyone should get. Schools should get this minimum level of funding from the state, whether they are state-run schools or privately run. Each school may charge more, usually paid by parents. Relatively minor details cover protection against unreasonable price increases, regulation of school quality (in so far as parents and pupils cannot judge that themselves), provision of scholarships by the more expensive schools, done as they choose: purely on academic ability, on sporting and other skills, or with a "parental hardship" component.

This is my view of what might be a "school voucher" system.

In particular, a parent is likely to want their own child to do as well as possible compared to other children. Or at least, a parent is likely to want their child to exploit its particular strengths. What, by contrast, is society likely to want? Does society want society to be stratified according to ability? Is that what it sees the purpose of education as (partly) being? If so, then what is all the talk of "fairness" about?

Society, as embodied in the state and paid out of taxation, should concern itself more with just the funding of the minimal level of provision than it should by any centrally directed plan for the "proper" education of children. In so far as we have a problem with education in the UK, it seems far more down to government central planning than it does to parental failings.

In any case, the ability of the state is largely non-existent, to put right more than a small proportion of the worst problems on any issue. As soon as they start taking on, or demanding, a greater responsibility, it all goes pear-shaped, including the good they were doing on a smaller scale.

And the reason: most people are far better at getting more of what they want than anyone else can decide or do for them. And, if and when they fail, people actually know where to lay the blame and how to make the best of the circumstances they find themselves in. And, when they succeed, they really do like to get all the credit.

Well, that's a lot from me. Is there anyone else out there?

Best regards

Heraklites said...

Thanks. To return to the original theme. Samovar at Not Saussure says:

I value an equal society. This is a moral point as much as anything. If the chance of baby Alice doing well in life … is better than the chance of baby Bob doing well in life because of who their parents are then there’s a problem. From this starting point, I think the issue is actually fairly straightforward. It’s just a matter of the weight you give to this moral principle balanced against other competing ones.

Some caveats: It’s possible ... that talents are heritable and therefore some correlation between the success of children and parents would be expected. Myself, I don’t think this effect is as strong as a lot of people think, but it must exist in at least some respects or evolutionary theory is in trouble. Either way, it’s a scientific issue, not yet resolved, and so this blog comment is not the place to talk about it. ...


Isn’t there some inconsistency here between the statements I have highlighted?

james higham said...

Nigel, who incidentally has given me away as a Luddite technophobe, makes a good point here when he says: "In this country, I cannot imagine the actuality of no state contribution to education."

Couldn't agree more.

Heraklites said...

Is what one can imagine a good guide to what is worth discussing? Or even what is politically feasible? Politics can surprise. I think few people expected either Thatcher or Blair to deliver as profound a revolution as each (in their own way) did.

By "no state contribution" I presume Nigel meant "no financial contribution". Probably few people can imagine the state making no contribution to the content of education either. Still, attitudes can change.

To answer my own question, "does society [the state] want society to be stratified according to ability?", it appears on the face of it that it wants this less than the market does. You might imagine that it is parents who want to shield their children from competition, and that it is the state which wants to ensure stratification (for the good of the nation) but, paradoxically, it appears to be the other way around.

james higham said...

You do understand, Heraklites, that you're leading the Blogfocus this evening?

Heraklites said...

Heraklites is most grateful.