Recent research has revealed that a person’s genetics are a powerful predictor as to whether they will enjoy academic success at school.
While DNA is not the only factor that will influence a person’s educational achievement, new studies are revealing how children have a genetic predisposition to doing well at school, which is strengthened if they are also from a privileged background.
Genetics strongly predict academic success
Back in 2016, a team of researchers at King's College London established a new method of genetic scoring that they showed capable of predicting a person’s academic achievement from DNA. At this point in time, the study represented the strongest prediction of a behavioral measure generated from DNA alone.
The UK-based team calculated polygenic scores to estimate genetic influence from common variants. Using this method, the team was able to identify 74 genetic variants that analysis found to be significantly associated with an individual’s years of completed education.
The results estimate that around 10% of the differences between an individual’s academic achievement by the age of 16 are determined by genetics.
While 10% does not seem significant, it is a much higher figure than has even been found for other factors impacting on educational success, such as “grit”, which refers to the personality trait of perseverance, which has been found to account for just 5% of the variance seen in academic achievement.
DNA and socio-economic status can predict academic achievement
Three years later, a team at the University of York, in the UK, continued exploring the genetic basis of academic success.
In particular, they wanted to uncover whether genetics were more important than having parents who had received a good education and were financially well off. Both genetics and socioeconomic status have been implicated by many previous studies as factors that can predict academic achievement. But it remained unclear how the two factors interacted, and which was more significant.
The study assessed data collected from 5,000 British children born between 1994 and 1996. The children’s test results from key educational stages along with their parents’ occupational status and educational level were analyzed. Using genome-wide polygenic scoring the researchers also measured how inherited genetic differences impacted the children’s academic success.
The results revealed a significant increase in achievement in those children who had high polygenic scores compared to those with low polygenic scores. This effect steadily grew with age and represented a difference of two letter grades by the level of GCSE.
However, the data also showed that having genes that facilitated academic success was not as beneficial as coming from a higher socio-economic background.
While 62% of children with a low genetic propensity for academic achievement who also came from a wealthy and well-educated family background made it to university, only 47% of children who were genetically predisposed to academic success but came for a poorer background made it to university.
This shows that having a genetic advantage, predisposing a person to academic achievement, is not as powerful as coming from a privileged background. Overall, children who had both a high genetic propensity for educational success and were born into a well-educated and wealthy family had the greatest advantage. 77% of these children ended up attending university. However, just 21% of children with a low genetic propensity for education and came from a poorer background.
The researchers concluded that coming from a privileged background has a potentially protective effect on children, allowing them to succeed academically where they may have failed.
While a genetic predisposition to education is also clearly important and be influential in whether a child from a disadvantaged background will continue into higher education, its effects are not as strong those of coming from a higher socio-economic background.
Both studies demonstrate that a child’s future academic success can be fairly reliably predicted at birth by looking first at their DNA, and then at their parent’s educational background and wealth. Together, DNA and parents' socioeconomic status provide powerful predictors of educational achievement.
Identifying children at risk
Two important conclusions can be drawn from the research into these predictors of academic success. The first is the DNA can indicate from birth whether a child is predisposed to educational success or not.
This information could, therefore, be used to highlight children who may be at a disadvantage and may even be at risk of having learning difficulties. Although, more research is needed to develop genetic testing to be more insightful.
Having access to this information earlier on could enable teachers to begin interventions earlier so that children are prevented from falling behind or from slipping under the radar.
The second conclusion is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are at risk of failing to fulfill their academic potential.
This should also be taken into consideration by educational bodies, so that interventions can be put in place so that all children are given the same chances, regardless of their socio-economic background.
- Krapohl, E., Rimfeld, K., Shakeshaft, N., Trzaskowski, M., McMillan, A., Pingault, J., Asbury, K., Harlaar, N., Kovas, Y., Dale, P. and Plomin, R. (2014). The high heritability of educational achievement reflects many genetically influenced traits, not just intelligence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(42), pp.15273-15278. https://www.pnas.org/content/111/42/15273.short
- Selzam, S., Krapohl, E., von Stumm, S., O'Reilly, P., Rimfeld, K., Kovas, Y., Dale, P., Lee, J. and Plomin, R. (2016). Predicting educational achievement from DNA. Molecular Psychiatry, 22(2), pp.267-272. https://www.nature.com/articles/mp2016107#citeas
- Stumm, S., Smith‐Woolley, E., Ayorech, Z., McMillan, A., Rimfeld, K., Dale, P. and Plomin, R. (2019). Predicting educational achievement from genomic measures and socioeconomic status. Developmental Science. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/desc.12925