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Teach First has turned me into a free speech martyr

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

I had the unusual experience last Sunday of appearing on a panel to defend free speech having been the victim of censorship 24 hours earlier. As Claire Fox, the chair of the event, said: ‘We are lucky enough to have our very own free speech martyr on the panel.’

Martyr is putting it a bit strongly, but I was ‘no platformed’ as a result of expressing a verboten point of view. What made it quite upsetting is that the organisation responsible was Teach First, an education charity that aims to recruit top university graduates into teaching and which I have always supported. Indeed, it is because I am sympathetic to Teach First’s aims — it wants to make the school system of England and Wales fairer by deploying excellent teachers to deprived areas — that I agreed to speak at its annual conference and write a blog post for its website.

Now, it is fair to say that my blog, which was published on October 26, will not have made for comfortable reading for those who believe that schools can redress all the inequalities that are outside their control. I pointed out that the strongest single predictor of how well children do in their GCSEs is IQ, with differences in children’s general cognitive ability accounting for more than half of the variance in exam results. That’s a finding that has been replicated numerous times. I also pointed out that schools have enjoyed little success when it comes to raising the IQs of individual students, but I allowed that they may discover how to do so, particularly with the aid of new technologies.

No reason that should lead to doom and gloom for educationalists. While it is true that children’s genes account for between 60 and 70 per cent of the variance in GCSE results, with IQ responsible for about half that genetic influence, that still leaves the environment accounting for 30 to 40 per cent. A consistent finding in the literature is that the differences between schools, such as the amount of resources a school receives, the number of children in a class, the quality of the teachers etc, accounts for around 10 per cent or less of the variance in exam results. Admittedly, 10 per cent is not huge, but it is not nothing, either. Schools can still make a difference — and that 10 per cent is an aggregate figure, with some schools having more impact. These claims may sound controversial, but they are based on mainstream science. Before composing the blog, I discussed it with two leading experts in the field and I sent the first draft to two more so they could check I hadn’t made any howlers.

Unfortunately, Teach First decided my blog was unacceptable. In spite of the fact that it was billed as part of a ‘debate’, and appeared alongside another piece expressing an alternative point of view, the organisation decided to remove it from its website and issue an apology. That’s right, it apologised for publishing my piece. ‘It was against what we believe is true and against our values and vision,’ Teach First explained.

I was surprised by this decision, not least because the first I heard about it was on Twitter. Surely, the fact that Teach First disagreed with my post was not a reason to delete it, particularly as it appeared in the context of a debate? If Teach First disapproved of my views so strongly, why publish the piece in the first place? They could have turned it down and I would have given it to someone else. But to publish it and then unpublish it smacks of censorship.

The most disappointing thing about the whole affair is that I share Teach First’s values and vision. In my blog I was attempting to show how teachers could remain evangelical about raising standards without denying the mainstream scientific understanding about the heritability of IQ and the impact of IQ on educational outcomes. Teach First’s reaction and its description of my piece as ‘against what we believe is true’ suggests it doesn’t share my view that its values are compatible with mainstream science. Denying that science is an unwise position for any educational organisation to take, particularly one that prides itself on being guided by evidence.

Russell Hobby, the CEO of Teach First, has apologised and I’m happy to accept it and move on. But I hope his organisation takes a more open-minded attitude to debate in future, particularly when it’s informed by the latest scientific research.

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