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Exam Results – Are They All In The Genes?

Despite all the talk about school performance league tables, declining exam results and investing in education, it would seem that how well you or your children do at school can actually have more to do with genetics than it does the right teacher.

Recent research looked at results from over 11,000 teenagers who had recently sat their GCSEs, and found that for the core subjects at least, genetics affected their results by almost 60 per cent. Results in English, maths and science were 58% affected by genetics, whereas artist and musical ability seems to be less affected by genetics, with only 42% genetic factors involved.

Testing to see how genes affected exam results involved looking at the GCSE scores of identical and non-identical twins, who would share the same environment and either 50 or 100 per cent of their genes.

Comparing the scores of different types of twins gave the scientists a way to find out how much of the variation in exam results was down to their environment, and how much could be attributed to genetic make-up. It meant that if identical twins got different scores in the same subject but were in different classes, the difference could be put down to their learning environment – classmates or teacher, rather than genetic ability in that subject.

The study showed that although a child’s DNA influences academic ability to a great extent, it’s not the only factor involved, and it’s still very possible for one identical twin to excel at a subject their twin doesn’t do as well at. However, on average, over half the variations could be put down to genetics. A child’s upbringing, home and learning environment accounted for 36% of the variation across all subjects. Details of the study appear in the journal, Plos One.

So, why do genetics have such a big effect on our academic ability? The reason that the researchers gave for genetics being such a major influence on exam scores is that the education system places a lot of importance on giving every child the same opportunities and education. It follows that if the school, teaching and other factors are equal, genetic similarities (or differences) will show up more.

Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the Institute of Education in London, was unimpressed by the findings, saying that while he could accept that genetics played a part in a child’s academic performance, knowing this might not actually be of much use.

He added that in the last decade, plenty of programmes had been created to help children who were falling behind in any area of their education, such as reading programmes for children who were struggling. These programmes don’t take genetics into account at all, they just focus on helping the individual child get to grips with whatever they are struggling with, and bring them up to the same level as other students.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching maths or the trombone.” Reiss said, “A good teacher is sensitive to the needs of the learner, and I don’t think that genetics is going to help very much with that.”

Even so, it’s certainly an interesting debate and brings the whole question of ‘nature –v- nurture’ back into the spotlight.

Written by Kerry Jones, a teaching assistant and GCSE exam marker.