Thursday, December 12, 2013

Genetics, not your school, is biggest factor in exam success: DNA twice as significant as environmental factors

A child's genes have a far greater impact on exam results than the quality of their school or the efforts of their parents, researchers claim.

Analysis of 11,000 teenagers’ GCSE results suggests that DNA is twice as significant as environmental factors such as school choice in determining educational success.

The study, published by researchers at King’s College London, will go some way towards swaying the course of the great nature vs nurture debate.

A child's genes have a far greater impact on exam results than the quality of their school or the efforts of their parents, a new study by King's College London has revealed
A child's genes have a far greater impact on exam results than the quality of their school or the efforts of their parents, a new study by King's College London has revealed. File picture
It will also bolster the stock of London Mayor Boris Johnson, who last month provoked anger by suggesting that some people, ‘like cornflakes rising to the top of the packet’, reach powerful positions because they are naturally more intelligent than others.

The new study suggests that each child’s genes make, on average, a 58 per cent difference for their results in the core subjects of English, maths and science. 

Environmental factors such as school, neighbourhood and the family home, are said to have an impact of just 29 per cent.

Other factors unique to each individual account for the remaining 13 per cent, the study suggests.

Genetics appear to have a bigger influence on results for science subjects than for humanities such as media studies, art or music – 58 per cent compared with 42 per cent.

Study leader Nicholas Shakeshaft said: ‘Children differ in how easily they learn at school. Our research shows that differences in students’ educational achievement owe more to nature than nurture.’

However, he warned against assuming that educational achievements are ‘genetically predetermined’. 

Instead, recognising the predispositions of each child may help improve learning, he said. 
He said a personalised education that took account of children’s differences would be better than a ‘one size fits all’ system which ignores genetics.

The paper, published in the journal PLOS One, said the findings may come as ‘an uncomfortable realisation’ to those in education.

Many teachers and politicians fear that a genetic approach to education may lead to less intelligent children being written off. 

But Professor Robert Plomin, who co-wrote the paper, said: ‘It means that educational systems which are sensitive to children’s individual abilities and needs, which are derived in part from their genetic predispositions, might improve educational achievement.’ 

The researchers compared the GCSE results of identical twins – who share 100 per cent of their genes – with those of non-identical twins, who share only 50 per cent of their DNA.

By subtracting the environmental impact, the scientists could disentangle nature from nurture and determine the impact of genes on the school results. 

Most of the genes that contribute to educational success have yet to be identified, although a 2010 study discovered small variants linked to mathematical ability.

Mr Shakeshaft said: ‘Once we understand more about how the genetic influences work, or once we can identify potential problems early on, we’ll be better able to target specific interventions to help those individuals who might otherwise struggle.’

Pugh cartoon

However other scientists warned that the study should be treated with caution.

Dr Simon Underdown, of Oxford Brookes University, said the research cannot show that intelligence is the product of one or two simple genes. 

‘Rather it is managed by an intricate process that relies on genetic factors and environmental influences. The nature-nurture debate is not over yet,’ he added.

Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust, said the idea of tailoring education based on genetics should be treated with a ‘great degree of scepticism’.

Mr Johnson was accused of ‘elitism’ last month when he said some people would always find it easier to get ahead than others. 

‘Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130,’ he said.

He suggested that competition was good because it meant that those with natural ability would be pushed to work harder.

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