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As I write I’m listening to the Today programme item about the social mobility white paper. The RSA will soon be hearing from someone whose work may be one of the most important contributions to this debate.

After yesterday’s discussion on this site it is interesting that the Government is leading with the idea of paying the best teachers to teach in the most deprived schools. This is a straightforward piece of public service redistribution, and no bad thing for that. As always, the success of such an initiative will depend on the way it is implemented; just because someone succeeds as a teacher in a middle class school in Richmond upon Thames doesn’t mean they would do as well in a school like Lilian Bayliss, which includes my younger son amongst its pupils. Indeed, arguably, in a school like Bayliss, which is overwhelmingly made up of working class children from minority ethnic families, it is important to inspire the pupils with successful teachers with a similar background to the pupils.

Liam Byrne has just disagreed with David Willetts that the Government is putting too much emphasis on early years in seeking to tackle entrenched inequality. Whether the Government’s interventions work is one question but the evidence that infant experience does have a major impact of future prospects does seem to be getting stronger. Yesterday we heard the fantastic news that our nominee for the Benjamin Franklin Medal (awarded to an international figure who has contributed to enlightenment thought) has accepted; she is Professor Elizabeth Gould from Princeton University.

Professor Gould is responsible for one of the recent decade's most important breakthroughs in neuroscience. Taking on one of the most established and dogmatically adhered to nostrums of her discipline, Gould painstakingly demonstrated the existence of neurogenesis - the generation of new neurons - in mammals. And, even more significantly for social policy, she found in her work with monkeys that the scope for neurogenesis -  in other words the ability of the brain to generate and repair brain cells - was significantly affected by the circumstances in which the monkey was reared. Mothers who had experienced high stress and suffered from being low in the dominance hierarchy produced offspring with a lower capacity for neurogenesis.

The good news, and why David Willetts may be right to question too great an emphasis on the early years, is that these effects can be corrected in later life. If monkeys brought up in deprived circumstances were then transferred to stimulating environments, their capacity for neurogenesis  recovered, over time, to the average.  

It is fantastic that Professor Gould will soon be sharing her latest research findings and their social implications with an RSA audience; we’ll be sure to invite Liam Byrne and David Willets.


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