Do private schools really make you smarter?

It tends to be that the higher one’s socioeconomic status, the better the school they attend and the better their outcomes; is it down to causation or is it purely correlation? This is the enduring education debate and those on the bandwagon of the causation hypothesis might just be stopped in their tracks by the latest study into how poverty and privilege actually affect the influence of genes on intelligence and academic achievement.

Elliot M. Tucker-Drob and Timothy C. Bates’ new paper addresses the popular view that academic potential is suppressed when people are relatively deprived and flourished in the more economically and socially advantaged people of society. Now, that is currently true for many developing countries, where being poor may also involve suffering from lead pollution, malnutrition, inadequate healthcare, and perhaps no schooling at all, however the study has some fascinating results for the UK context.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the meta-analysis finds that not only does socioeconomic status have zero effects on the interaction between genetics and IQ but the effects almost move oppositely to the expected direction in the UK. That is to say: being relatively poor in a Western European country like the UK, where more equalised access to high quality education and healthcare can be found, does not impact your intelligence nor your capability to achieve academically.   

This means that rather than only the rich experiencing the sort of environments in which genes for IQ can express, the poor, in the UK and other European countries, may experience them even more. The suggested reason for this is the uniform implementation of welfare and educational policies we see in the UK. It may even be the case that we have reached a point where one is at an opportunities advantage—in terms of gene expression—if they are badly-off.

Combined with the existing literature, which finds a strong genetic component to IQ, and little shared environment effect, it becomes more and more difficult to attribute the success of the wealthy to their exclusive schools.

The correlation between socioeconomic status and success in the UK is realistically explained in other ways and there is diminishing credibility to seeking social justice for the perceived private school privilege. Yet, that schools do affect where young people end up and that people are being held back by having to work harder than those who are of the same intelligence but of higher socioeconomic status seems to be something that people want to believe in and indeed it continues to be a prominent battle in politics.

So as I move further from my long-held position that the school you attend makes a whole load of difference to your academic achievement, I think it is valuable, still, to promote ideal schooling systems and make a case against such ideas as banning private schools and striving for equality of outcomes. The reason being that furthering innovation and choice across schooling enables us to realise the best practices via experimentation, comparison and consumer (parental) choice. Also, other worthwhile benefits to attending high-quality schools can be appreciated, even if they do not generally enhance our exam performance or increase our IQs.

The latest anti-private school piece run by The National is a classic example of arguments we hear against ‘elite’ institutions. Closing down private schools as the author suggests would bring no benefits to poor people and reducing the quality of schools available would probably disadvantage everyone if we take a long-view of time. It is still unclear what good it would do even if we all agreed that equality was the most important goal. Whether or not we are striving for equality, the best way forward would surely be to raise the lowest up to the highest standard – and not to eliminate elitism.

When Cat Boyd refers to elite schools, she means private, high-quality schools in Scotland. And “everyone with half a brain knows that [these] are the most brazenly obvious impediment to [social mobility]”, Cat says. In fact, more of a binding impediment is post-code allocation to schools and that is how the majority of parents indirectly buy their way to a better education – by moving to high-end areas with good schools. Private schools on the other hand educate less than 7% of pupils in Scotland.

If we accept that schools barely impact academic outcomes but we still care about social mobility for its own merits, then the best way to aid that is to either scrap school catchment areas or act on creating more places and scholarships for poor students to attend private schools. Implementing universal school choice would be the most obvious policy solution; something Cat Boyd argues against, among other unsubstantiated claims and assumptions about why private schools are the root of what she regards as major problems with our education system.  

Tucker-Drob and Bates’ research is a strong piece of evidence against the anti-private school spiel and plans like Scottish parliament’s potentially forthcoming Education (Scotland) Act. The Bill, as it currently stands, tries to go further than outlawing inequality in education provision across the board, and seeks to tackle inequalities of outcome. There is a point at which we cannot endeavor to make people any more equal without seeing undesirable consequences.

We do not yet have education legislation in Scotland and the rest of the UK that follows reality, nor a pro-choice schooling system that is conducive to advancement. Though on the other hand, without being at all complacent, the result can be positively looked upon. A poor person has one of the best chances living in a country like the UK, as opposed to somewhere else in the world, and those who emigrate to our country can also enjoy the opportunity to make the most out of being intelligent.

For determining your chances, it matters more what country you live in – not what school you attend.



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