Education researchers have dismissed long held belief that genes influence how children are likely to perform in school and even determine future success.

A recent study by researchers at Institute of Education of University of London and Buckingham University indicate genetic make-up contribute very little towards children’s reading skills and overall academic performance.

According to Dr John Jerrim and his colleagues at Institute of Education, the effects of genes that are believed to be significant for reading ability are very small. “Even if those genes influence reading skills, there is little evidence that they are distributed unevenly across socio-economic groups,” says Dr Jerrim.

The idea is also held by Dr Chris Woodhead, a professor of education at Buckingham University, who argues that the pattern of children’s future success is barely embedded in their genetic make-up. “Teachers and more so parents should know that genes contribute to about two per cent towards children’s academic performance,” says Woodhead.

Although past research backs fundamentalist view that genes play a significant role in academic performance, the new studies suggest that schools and policy-makers should go back to the drawing board in their effort to close gaps in pupils’ academic attainment.

Socio-economic groups

“We should be wary of genetic explanations for educational outcomes between children in different socio-economic groups,” Prof Anna Vignoles, Jerrim’s colleague in the study, says.

Those worries were recently raised by a group of over 200 researchers, who assembled data of 126,000 people globally. They analysed their hereditary information through encoded DNA. The mass analysis faulted earlier studies that indicated genes significantly influence intelligence. “If intelligence is inherited, where are the genes hiding?” asked Dr Philipp Koellinger of Erasmus University in Holland, who was the organiser of the study.

The new research is likely to disturb parents who think intelligence is inherited. There are successful parents who think that their children will follow in their footsteps. But the research is challenging the fundamentalist views of ‘like father like son’ tradition in reference to pupil’s academic performance and future success.

The researchers are also asking schools, policy-makers and parents to take a hard look at the role played by socio-economic gaps in influencing academic success. In his study, Jerrim and his associates noted that children from lower socio-economic status were generally poorer at reading than children of professionals. The study that was sponsored by London-based Economic and Social Research Council was the first to use genetically encoded data to explain differences across socio-economic groups in reading skills. 

The multi-disciplinary study that co-opted Dr Raghu Lingam of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Dr Angela Friend of  University of Colorado and Prof Vignoles of the University of Cambridge had focused on reading skills, since they are regarded  as crucial  determinant of educational and occupational achievement.

Out of a cohort of 5,000 children aged nine and 11, the researchers found that children with professional parents scored on average 60 per cent, while children with unskilled parents scored an average of 42 per cent. But after comparing those reading scores to genes associated with intelligence, the researchers noted genetic factors explained only two per cent of the achievement gap.

Granted that this type of study is in its infancy, there is need for teachers, parents and policy-makers to start thinking afresh on how to improve pupils’ academic performance. The emerging evidence is that irrespective of one’s intelligence quotient, home environment in relation to socio-economic progress is central to academic success.

Although the studies quoted above have been conducted in developed countries and have utilised human encoded genetic information, studies carried by Uwezo-East Africa on learning in primary schools in East Africa indicate most pupils from poor socio-economic backgrounds may be attending school in large numbers but are not learning properly.

The issue of the poor not benefiting from education is now a serious matter, taking into account that evidence is emerging that socio-economic ability levels soon after birth are becoming strong predictor of future educational success in the 21st century.

In Kenya, whereas 60 per cent of Standard Three children from rich families could read and write, only 33 per cent of their counterparts from poorest households had such skills, recent Uwezo study showed.

The genes’ research, though unpopular in some quarters, is seemingly throwing a lifeline to disadvantaged pupils who might be thinking that they cannot catch up and even progress to higher levels in education. The new evidence is dispelling fears that whereas children of professionals might have an upper hand as a result of a conducive learning environment at home, everything connected to positive academic outcomes is not necessarily cast in stone.

According to Jerrim, quite often children who start in the least-able group can, and do, progress all the way up to the most able group. “The crux of the matter is that bright children come from all backgrounds, not just middle-class families,” adds Jerrim.

Too often, the degree of academic movement is not static. Earlier studies conducted by Dr Leon Feinstein of the University of London’s Institute of Education indicate the pattern of children’s future success in education also depended on early preparation to schooling process. He argues that in instances where some might have been written off as starting out in life without the genetic or socio economic advantages, good teaching and home support could turn them into high profile academic achievers.

No doubt, early intervention in nursery and early primary schooling could make a difference by militating against assumed genetic make-up superiority and social class factors, which have held back bright children from poor households. 


By Wachira Kigotho

Source: The Standard Digital News –