Genes affect GCSE results. But your school – and especially your pre-school – can change how much they matter

Writing in the Telegraph, Martha Gill gives her thoughts on the recent reports on the role of genes in GCSE results and suggests the real story is the importance of pre-school…

Last week a genetics experiment caused a bit of a stir. A study – a rigorous, well-grounded study – showed that genes count for 58 per cent variation in GCSE results. Genes are more important than home life, than school, than whether you are rich or poor.

…But it’s only 58. You’ve still got a 42 per cent margin for messing up that child’s GCSEs. Surely more than enough for anyone.

That aside, the story had a vital bit of information missing. That 58 per cent is an average – but varies hugely for individuals. And here’s the thing: it varies because of education. Your school can change how much your genes matter.

A paper published in Psychological Science helps explain why. A scientist called Elliot Tucker-Drob wanted to work out the effects of nature and nurture on test scores. He used twin studies to tease this out – looking at children with the same genes but different schooling.

His findings were surprising. For kids who went to kindergarten, genetics accounted for 70 per cent variation in test results. For those who didn’t, genes didn’t matter as much – only causing 45 per cent variation. This is counterintuitive. How on earth does going to kindergarten make your genes more important?

Here’s the answer, and it’s to do with malleable young brains. Toddlers have large amounts of dopamine flowing around, and the number of connections they can make – or not make – is vast. But if kids are denied an rich environment at an early stage, their natural abilities simply never show through. Grow up without books or structured play, and it doesn’t matter how clever you were going to be – you’ll never realise your potential. Put another way, if everyone got a perfect early education, only genes would decide who did best at GCSE.

Given this, it’s not surprising that kindergarten goes a long way towards closing the gap between rich and poor. Tucker-Drob found that most of the score differences were among disadvantaged children. The rich, on the other hand, seemed to get enough stimulation at home – kindergarten didn’t matter so much.

So here’s the upshot: we need good preschools. The most important years of schooling happen before children can even spell “cat”. And the 58 per cent result causing all the fuss is actually pretty good news. It should be that high for everyone.

More at:  Genes affect GCSE results. But your school can change how much they matter

Thoughts on these insights from Martha Gill? Surprising? Interesting? Please share in the comments or on twitter… 

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Categories: Research.


  1. FionaSheikh

    SchoolsImprove this is a bit misleading – if kids have a good early home life, preschool wouldn’t be needed to boost brain connections.

  2. FionaSheikh

    SchoolsImprove it’s encouraging parents to send kids to preschool, to improve academic achievement – the same can be achieved at home

  3. FionaSheikh

    SchoolsImprove but it does add weight to free preschool places for kids from families where they won’t get the interaction they need

  4. FionaSheikh

    IanYorston SchoolsImprove I think they already do as at risk children are already being offered free places at 2 yrs old

  5. IanYorston

    FionaSheikh – Suspect that it’s children who don’t quite count as “at risk” who have the most to lose. #SpiritLevel
    // SchoolsImprove

  6. FionaSheikh

    IanYorston SchoolsImprove yes you’re right. The ones just under the radar – am working with a few and it breaks my heart tbh

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