Genes have a big impact on exam results: UK research

How much do genes really influence exam results? Exam image from www.shutterstock.com

New research claims genetics play an important role in the exam results of British teenagers, even more important than their home life or their teachers.

The research, conducted by academics in the United Kingdom and in the United States, looked at the end of year General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam results of pairs of identical and non-identical twins.

The nationwide study included a sample of 11,117 16-year-olds and found that their genetic makeup may matter more than their teachers, schools or home environments.

The research found that genetics accounts for a large amount of the difference between a individual student’s score and the mean score in that subject. In fact, genetic difference accounts for 52% of the variation in English, 55% in maths and 58% in science, whereas environmental influences – including family, neighbourhood and schools – account for 31% of English scores, 26% of maths and 24% science.

The authors say the findings do not imply that educational achievement is pre-determined, or that environment doesn’t matter, but they argue that a one-size-fits-all approach to education doesn’t recognise the individual difference caused by genetics.

But Melbourne University Senior Lecturer Catherine Scott explains that this kind of research is fundamentally flawed and estimating the influence of “heritability” in education is notoriously difficult.

“Heritability only really matters in a situation where environments are totally and utterly the same,” she said.

“The idea came about from selective stock breading. People wanted to know whether their genetic manipulation of cattle, for example, really meant more milk was being produced. Where the cows are all being subjected to strictly the same environment, diet and so on then you can tell to what extent their genes made a difference.”

She also argued that genetics and environment couldn’t be looked at as isolated factors because genes express themselves in different ways, depending on the environment – known as epigenetics.

University of New England Professor Brian Byrne, who has also undertaken research on genetics and educational outcomes, was interested to see that the results showed that genetic influence is lower than what’s been previously found in younger children.

“The influence of the environment which twins share…is a bit larger than what shows up with younger kids,” he said.

Professor Byrne also argued that personalised education that factors in genetic differences – something recommended by the researchers – is a long way off from being a reality, nor is it desirable for education.

“The question is whether you want to do that. There are other goals in education like compensating children for their weaknesses not playing to their strengths,” he said.

“Rather than enriching the environment for the good readers, intense and well-directed education for the weaker readers is a laudable goal.”

Peter Visscher, Professor and Chair of Quantitative Genetics from the University of Queensland, has undertaken research in genetics studying the differences it causes between individuals. He said the study was not surprising as similar results have been found.

“Basically [the study showed] that monozygotic (identical) twins heritability are more similar in school performance than dizygotic (non-identical) twins,” he said.