Differences in educational achievement owe more to genetics than environment

December 11, 2013

The degree to which students' exam scores differ owes more to their genes than to their teachers, schools or family environments, according to new research from King's College London published today in PLOS ONE.

The study, which took place in the UK, looked at students' scores for their GCSE's (General Certificate of Secondary Education), a UK-wide examination at the end of compulsory education at 16 years old.

The authors explain that the findings do not imply that educational achievement is genetically pre-determined, or that environmental interventions are not important, but rather that recognising the importance of children's natural predispositions may help improve learning.

Researchers compared the GCSE exam scores of over 11,000 identical and non-identical 16 year old twins from the Medical Research Council (MRC) funded Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). Identical twins share 100% of their genes, whereas fraternal (non-identical) twins share on average only half of the genes that vary between people. Therefore, if identical twins' exam scores are more alike than those of non-identical twins, the difference in exam scores between the two sets of twins is due to genetics, rather than environment.

The researchers found that for compulsory core subjects (English, Mathematics and Science), genetic differences between students explain on average 58% of the differences between GCSE scores. In contrast, 29% of the differences in core subject grades are due to shared environment - such as schools, neighbourhoods or families which twins share. The remaining differences in GCSE scores were explained by non-shared environment, unique to each individual.

Overall, science grades (such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics) were found to be more heritable than Humanities grades (such as Media Studies, Art, Music) - 58% vs 42%, respectively.

Nicholas Shakeshaft, PhD student at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London and lead author of the paper says: "Children differ in how easily they learn at school. Our research shows that differences in students' educational achievement owe more to nature than nurture. Since we are studying whole populations, this does not mean that genetics explains 60% of an individual's performance, but rather that genetics explains 60% of the differences between individuals, in the population as it exists at the moment. This means that heritability is not fixed - if environmental influences change, then the influence of genetics on educational achievement may change too."

Professor Robert Plomin, senior author at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London and Director of the TEDS study, says: "Whilst these findings have no necessary or specific implications for educational policies, it's important to recognise the major role that genetics plays in children's educational achievement. 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."

Professor Michael O'Donovan, from the Neurosciences and Mental Health board at the Medical Research Council (MRC), said "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. 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. Further research is needed to assess the implications of the findings for educational strategies. The MRC-funded TEDS cohort highlights the importance of long-term investment and how this can help improve our understanding of how genes and environment interact over the course of our lives."
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Notes to editors:

For interviews with the authors, or a copy of the paper, please contact:


Seil Collins, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London Email: seil.collins@kcl.ac.uk Tel: (+44) 0207 848 5377/(+44) 07718 697 176

Paper reference: Shakeshaft, N.G et al. 'Strong genetic influence on a UK nationwide test of educational achievement at the end of compulsory education at age 16' PLOS ONE

Link to the live article - available once the embargo lifts

http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0080341

About King's College London:

King's College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2013/14 QS World University Rankings) and the fourth oldest in England. It is The Sunday Times 'Best University for Graduate Employment 2012/13'. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has more than 25,000 students (of whom more than 10,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and more than 6,500 employees. King's is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £554 million.

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: http://www.kingshealthpartners.org.

The College is in the midst of a five-year, £500 million fundraising campaign - World questions|King's answers - created to address some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity as quickly as feasible. The campaign's five priority areas are neuroscience and mental health, leadership and society, cancer, global power and children's health. More information about the campaign is available at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/kingsanswers.

About the Medical Research Council:

The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. http://www.mrc.ac.uk

The MRC Centenary Timeline chronicles 100 years of life-changing discoveries and shows how our research has had a lasting influence on healthcare and wellbeing in the UK and globally, right up to the present day. http://www.centenary.mrc.ac.uk

King's College London

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