This is why much research to understand and redress disparities in educational achievement – and thus improve social mobility – has focused on early childhood.
Nurture can shape nature
It is well established that growing up in poverty negatively affects brain development. The parts of the brain that help us to deal with adversity grow more quickly to make poor children more resilient – but to the detriment of other parts of their brain.
Children from a poorer background also are held back by less conversational interaction with adults. One influential study found that, in the first three years of life, these children will hear around 30m fewer words than children from wealthier families. And it is not just the number of words. As their parents do not have the time to talk with them (or the resources to hire someone to do so), they also experience fewer conversational turns in the form of “back-and-forth” dialogue.
Increasing the number of conversational turns can help to expand the regions of the brain associated with language development and negate the effects of poverty on brain development. Therefore, efforts have focused on helping parents to increase the time spent in conversation with their children, utilising technology such as “talk pedometers”, which count the number of words and conversational turns a child experiences each day. In a recent study, the use of this technology led to a 32% increase in the number of words a child hears per hour.
Nature can shape nurture
But, while understanding the effects of poverty on brain development has been seen as helpful, many researchers have shied away from looking at other biological aspects of educational achievement, such as genetics. Past use of genetics to support policies that discriminated against different groups based on race or mental health and capacity has left many people hesitant to revisit the idea of utilising genetics to understand the causes of inequality – even if the goal is now to promote equality.
However, more and more people are showing interest in learning about their genetic history and how their genetics shape different aspects of their life. Millions of people have spat in a tube and sent this for genetic testing in order to learn more about their ancestry and health through their DNA. Knowing more about our genetic predispositions gives us the power to make changes to our lifestyles that could make us healthier, more successful and, hopefully, happier.
In order to utilise DNA testing to identify and then support children less likely to do well in school, rules are needed to determine how that genetic information will be used. In the sci-fi film “Gattaca”, genotype profiling is used to determine who is qualified to hold different jobs, leading to a genetic hierarchy with no possibility of social mobility. People need to trust that knowing their genetic information will help them to achieve their dreams, rather than ensuring that their destiny is determined by their genes.
Some schools are revising their exclusion policies and investing in training teachers to better understand and support students displaying behavioural issues, which often stem from difficult home circumstances and living in high-crime inner-city neighbourhoods. Since schools in Glasgow, Scotland implemented a new approach in 2010, the city has seen an 88% reduction in school exclusions and a 50% reduction in youth crime.
Biased algorithms are also holding back black mortgage applicants. Research in the US found that older credit-scoring algorithms used by some mortgage lenders favoured particular financial behaviours that are more common among white people. As a consequence, black applicants were 80% more likely to be rejected than white applicants from similar backgrounds.
Since then, the promise – if not the reality – of mobility has been key to maintaining social order. Major protests against the status quo have been based on the lack of access to mobility by certain groups as a consequence of their race, gender, etc.
There is a similar situation in the UK, according to Tom Wicksteed, early careers manager at Mishcon de Reya, and this is depriving the country of a truly diverse workforce. “Despite being the world’s fifth-largest economy, according to a Unicef report in 2018, the UK ranked 16th in terms of educational inequality at secondary education and 23rd at primary level. This disparity has been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic,” he says. “Background should never be a barrier to a successful career and, in the coming years, employers will need to work even harder to support those from disadvantaged backgrounds and remove the barriers that arise at all stages of the employment cycle.”