Researchers from King's College London looked at students' scores for their GCSE's (General Certificate of Secondary Education), a UK-wide examination at the end of
compulsory education at 16 years old.
The authors explained that the findings do not imply that educational achievement is genetically pre-determined, or that environmental interventions are not important, but rather that recognising the importance of children's natural predispositions may help improve learning.
Researchers compared the GCSE exam scores of over 11,000 identical and non-identical 16-year-old twins from the Medical Research Council (MRC) funded Twins Early Development Study (TEDS).
Identical twins share 100 per cent of their genes, whereas fraternal (non-identical) twins share on average only half of the genes that vary between people.
Therefore, if identical twins' exam scores are more alike than those of non-identical twins, the difference in exam scores between the two sets of twins is due to genetics,
rather than environment.The researchers found that for compulsory core subjects
(English, Mathematics and Science), genetic differences between students explain on average 58 per cent of the differences between GCSE scores.
In contrast, 29 per cent of the differences in core subject grades are due to shared environment - such as schools, neighbourhoods or families which twins share.
The remaining differences in GCSE scores were explained by non-shared environment, unique to each individual. Overall, science grades (such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics) were found to be more heritable than Humanities grades (such as Media Studies, Art, Music) - 58 per cent vs 42 per cent, respectively.
"Children differ in how easily they learn at school. Our research shows that differences in students' educational achievement owe more to nature than nurture," said Nicholas Shakeshaft, PhD student at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London and lead author of the paper.
"Since we are studying whole populations, this does not mean that genetics explains 60 per cent of an individual's performance, but rather that genetics explains 60 per cent of the differences between individuals, in the population as it exists at the moment.
"This means that heritability is not fixed – if environmental influences change, then the influence of genetics on educational achievement may change too," said
Shakeshaft. The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.