A new U.K. study suggests that a child’s academic success is strongly predicted by the parents’ socioeconomic status and the child’s inherited DNA differences.
However, having wealthy and educated parents seems to trump good genes: Only 47% of children in the study sample with a high genetic propensity for education but a poorer background made it to university, compared with 62% with a low genetic propensity but more affluent parents.
The researchers found that children with a high genetic propensity for education who were also from wealthy and well-educated family backgrounds had the greatest advantage, with 77% going to University.
Meanwhile, only 21% of children from families with low socioeconomic status and low genetic propensity carried on into higher education.
The findings, published in the journal Developmental Science, may help identify children most at risk of poor educational outcomes, the researchers suggest.
“Genetics and socioeconomic status capture the effects of both nature and nurture, and their influence is particularly dramatic for children at the extreme ends of distribution,” said lead author of the study, Professor Sophie von Stumm, from the Department of Education at the University of York.
“However, our study also highlights the potentially protective effect of a privileged background. Having a genetic makeup that makes you more inclined to education does make a child from a disadvantaged background more likely to go to university, but not as likely as a child with a lower genetic propensity from a more advantaged background.”
“While the findings of our study are observational, they do suggest that children don’t have equal opportunity in education because of their different genetics and family backgrounds. Where you come from has a huge impact on how well you do in school.”
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from 5,000 children born in the U.K. between 1994 and 1996. The researchers looked at their test results at key stages of their education as well as their parents’ educational level and occupational status.
The researchers used genome-wide polygenic scoring — a statistical technique which adds up the effect of DNA variants — to test how inherited genetic differences predict children’s educational success.
They discovered that children with high polygenic scores differed significantly in achievement at age seven from children with low polygenic scores. This achievement gap steadily widened between the groups throughout the school years leading to an equivalent difference in grades of an A- and a C- by the time children were taking their GCSEs.
“More research is required, but we hope that this paper will stimulate discussion around the potential to predict if children are at risk for poor academic outcomes — the basis of these discussions goes beyond purely scientific criteria to issues of ethics and social values,” said von Stumm.
“We hope that results like these can open doors for children, rather than close them, by stimulating the development and provision of personalised environments that can appropriately enhance and supplement a child’s education.”
The study was carried out in collaboration with researchers at University College London, Kings College London and the University of New Mexico.
Source: University of York