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School achievement 'more nature than nurture'

16 December 2013
Appeared in BioNews 735

Genetics may have a greater impact on the differences between students' GCSE results than upbringing or teaching, according to research from King's College London.

Comparing the exam results of identical and non-identical twins, researchers showed that, on average, genetics accounted for 52 percent of the differences across all exam scores. Shared environment, which includes all family and school influences shared by twins, accounted for 29 percent of the differences across GSCSE scores. Non-shared environmental influences, such as illness or having a different teacher, made up the rest.

For science subjects (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) genetics made up 58 percent of the differences, suggesting that exam scores are 'more heritable' in these subjects than in the humanities (Music, Art and Media Studies), which owed 42 percent of their differences to genetics.

Nicholas Shakeshaft, a PhD student at MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SCDP) Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, and lead author of the paper, said: 'Our research shows that differences in students' educational achievement owe more to nature than nurture'.

However, he is quick to point out that this research does not mean that a child's educational achievement is set from birth: 'Since we are studying whole populations, this does not mean that genetics explains 60 percent of an individual's performance, but rather that genetics explains 60 percent of the differences between individuals, in the population as it exists at the moment'.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, analysed how the GCSE results of 5,474 pairs of twins varied from the national average. The researchers compared identical twins (who share identical DNA) to non-identical twins (who share only 50 percent of their DNA), and assumed that each set of twins had the same home environment and schooling. If identical twins' results are more similar than non-identical twins', the difference is likely due to genetics rather than environmental influences.

Professor Robert Plomin, who designed the study, suggested to New Scientist that these results may start to change the face of education: 'One strong implication of recognising and respecting genetically driven differences between children is to personalise education as much as possible, rather than imposing a "one-size-fits-all" approach'.

Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust, urged scepticism: 'The idea of "personalised medicine", which uses our understanding of genetics in order to tailor treatment to individuals, has been promoted for several decades with only very modest success to show for it and brings problems with equity in accessing it'.

'The idea of tailoring education to individuals based on our understanding of their genetics deserves to be treated with, if anything, an even greater degree of scepticism and is likely to have even more equity of access problems'.

Thousands of genes are believed to influence educational achievement and academic ability, making designing a screen to assess a person's educational potential based on their genome difficult. 'We don't even understand the genetics of height yet, which is very easy to measure', said Norcross. 'So we are light years from applying this type of thing to education'.

Professor Michael O'Donovan, from the Medical Research Council (MRC), told the Telegraph: 'The findings from this substantial cohort add to a convincing body of evidence that genes influence characteristics that are ultimately reflected in educational performance'.

'But it is equally important to stress that the researchers found that environments for students are also important and that the study does not imply that improvements in education will not have important benefits', he added. 'For individuals living in the best and worst environments, this exposure is likely to make more of a difference to their educational prospects than their genes'.

Differences in students' GCSE scores owe more to genetics than environment
King's College London (press release) |  12 December 2013
Exam grades 'more nature than nurture'
BBC News |  12 December 2013
GCSE exam success is mapped out in DNA from birth, scientists find
Daily Telegraph |  12 December 2013
Nature more than nurture determines exam success
New Scientist |  12 December 2013
Strong Genetic Influence on a UK Nationwide Test of Educational Achievement at the End of Compulsory Education at Age 16
PLoS One |  11 December 2013
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