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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.