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Academic success may be down to genes, not grammar schools

26 March 2018
Appeared in BioNews 943

Good exam results may be down to genetics rather than attending selective schools, suggests a study of nearly 5,000 British students.

'Our study suggests that for educational achievement there appears to be little added benefit from attending selective schools. While schools are crucial for academic achievement, the type of school appears less so,' said lead author Emily Smith-Woolley at King's College London.

According to The Telegraph, she also said that teachers and schools should be more open to discussing the role of genetics in the classroom, and the effects it has on educational attainment.

Researchers compared genetic differences between white British students who attended selective grammar and private schools, and non-selective comprehensive schools in the UK. They also analysed selection factors such as their families' socioeconomic status, the pupil's academic ability and achievement at age 11, as well as their GCSE results (exams taken at 16). 

Their findings initially showed that school type explained the approximately seven percent difference seen in GCSE results, with students at selective schools scoring higher in English, science and maths than students in non-selective schools. But once the selection factors were taken into account, school type explained less than one percent of the grade differences.

'It's very surprising for people to find out that [selective] schools aren't adding value. [The schools] take the kids that do the best at school and show they do the best at school. It’s an entirely self-fulfilling prophecy,' senior author Professor Robert Plomin at King's College London told The Guardian.

Yet selective schools may benefit students in the long term, as often they are better resourced, attract better teachers and have extra-curricular activities. 'Although school type appears to have little impact on achievement at GCSE, there are many reasons why parents may opt to send their children to selective schools,' Smith-Woolley told The Telegraph.

'Future research is needed to identify if school type makes a difference in other outcomes, such as university and career success.’

This study is the first to show subtle genetic differences between students attending selective and comprehensive schools. However, the genetic scoring system and methods used have been disputed by experts not involved in the study.

Though interesting, the study 'doesn't get an A+ on the statistics' said Dr Ewan Birney, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute. 'The sample size is still somewhat too small, and ideally at least two separate educational systems with selection would be studied, say, UK and Denmark.'

He found the results of the study unsurprising. 'We've known that genetics have a reasonable effect on different measures of educational attainment and with a selective system (grammar and private in the UK), unsurprisingly, there is implicit selection for genetics,' he said.

Professor Gil McVean at the University of Oxford said: 'What [the researchers] show is that there is a correlation between school type and other factors (including prior attainment, etc.) and GCSE outcome. It doesn't mean that attending a school of a particular type isn't important – it just means you can't tease out the contribution of the non-genetic factors. A much bigger and better-designed study is needed to provide an answer to this question. What is clear, is that the contribution of genetics effects is very small in comparison to these other factors.'

The study was published in the journal npj Science of Learning.

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