Is the capacity for educational achievement something you can inherit? Photo: Getty
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How genes can influence children’s exam results

Education is more than what happens passively to a child.

The idea that children can inherit the ability to get good results at school can spark heated debate. But, put simply, all this means is that children differ in how easy and enjoyable they find learning and that these differences are to a large extent explained by differences in their genes, rather than differences between schools or teachers.

We know from previous research that educational achievement in primary, middle school years and at the end of compulsory education is highly heritable. Heritability is a population statistic – it doesn’t tell us anything about a single individual. It describes the extent to which differences between children can be put down to DNA differences, on average, in a particular population at a particular time.

Twins’ exam results

Our new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on the UK-wide standardised exam results at age 16, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). We obtained exam grades from over 13,000 identical and non-identical twins from the Twins Early Development Study who were also assessed on nine broad psychological domains, including intelligence, educational self-belief, personality, behaviour problems, and well-being.

Identical twins share 100 per cent of their genes, whereas non-identical twins, just like any siblings, share on average only half of the genes that vary between people. If overall, identical twins are more alike than non-identical twins on a particular trait, then this implies there is a genetic influence.

Our study showed that the mean results in the GCSE core subjects of English, mathematics and science is more heritable (62 per cent) than the nine other psychological domains (35–58 per cent) we looked at.

This means that differences in how well children perform at exams are to a large extent explained by the difference in their DNA. Importantly, it does not mean that genetics explain 62 per cent of a single child’s school achievement.

Not just intelligence

When we analysed different traits, we found that educational achievement is correlated with many characteristics of children, not just intelligence. Our results indicate that these correlations are largely mediated by genetic factors. To the extent that children’s traits predict educational achievement, they do so largely for genetic reasons.

Although intelligence accounts for more of the heritability of GCSE results than any other single domain, the joint contribution of children’s self-belief, behaviour problems, personality, well-being, and their perceptions of school environment, collectively account for about as much GCSE heritability as intelligence. Together with intelligence, these domains account for 75 per cent of the heritability of GCSE performance.

Indicator of equality

The children in this study were all taught the national curriculum, so to some extent received a similar education. As children’s learning experiences become more similar, they begin to explain the similarities between them rather than the differences between them. As a result of these diminished environmental differences, the relative genetic influences increase. So in a way, high heritability is an indicator of equality.

For example, despite high heritability, with sufficient educational effort, nearly all children could reach minimal levels of literacy and numeracy. This is an explicit goal of education in Finland. Success in achieving that goal would reduce differences in children’s educational achievement, which could change heritability. Hypothetically, if all environmental effects on individual differences (such as educational inequality) were to be minimalised, then the heritability estimate for educational achievement would be 100 per cent.

Personalised learning

So what to make of this? Genes are important, not just in educational achievement or intelligence, but in a whole raft of other traits which contribute to how easy and enjoyable children find learning. Education is more than what happens passively to a child. Children are active participants in selecting, modifying, and creating experiences that are matched to their genetic predispositions. In genetics, this is known as “gene-environment correlation”.

At the practical level, our findings add support for the trend in education toward personalised learning rather than a one-size fits all model. None of this means that schools, parents or teachers aren’t important. Of course they are – and each has an important role in helping children achieve the best of their potential.

Eva Krapohl receives funding from the Medical Research Council Studentship. Kaili Rimfeld receives funding from the Medical Research Council Studentship. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation