We Can’t All Make the Grade

Standpoint, October 2008.


It is a gradient that, given fine-grained tests, will be found to apply from Year 1 to university. In Year 1, it is indeed true that almost all children can learn everything that Year 1 teaches. Some will learn it faster than others, but almost everyone can learn to read and do maths at Year 1 level. But every year the number who cannot keep up increases. By the time children reach their teens, some large proportion – a third at least, arguably more – should not be on a continuing academic track. By the end of secondary school, that proportion is around 80 per cent or 90 per cent.

The last refuge of the educational romantics is the extremely high proportion of children of the professional classes who do well in school. Surely that must be explained by affluence and access to the best schools. Or as Adonis put it: “There is no genetic or moral reason why the whole of society should not succeed to the degree that the children of the professional classes do today.” Actually, there are both genetic and moral reasons, along with environmental ones.