Genetics and education: How relevant is DNA to academic performance?

Dr. Tim Morris tells us whether personalised education based upon a child's genes is necessary.


‌‌Rapid advances in genetic research, coupled with a more individualised approach to education, have led to calls for students’ learning to be tailored on the basis of their DNA. However, after comparing the genetic data of 3,500 children with their school records, our experts found little evidence to suggest that DNA is any more useful than other socioeconomic or demographic indicators. They say more accurate and helpful predictions can be made based on children’s early education and their family environment.

The link between DNA and learning outcomes

Genetic research has been rapidly advancing for the past decade and has entered many areas of society, such as medicine and criminal justice. In the education sector, recognising that people learn in different ways based on different needs, the focus has been shifting towards finding ways to identify children who may need more educational support.

Given that our DNA is something that makes all of us unique and is increasingly easy to study, some researchers and politicians suggest it could be used to inform certain public services and policies.

To measure whether genetic data could predict a pupils’ achievement, researchers from the University of Bristol Medical School and the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit examined the genetic and educational data from 3,500 children in Bristol’s Children of the 90s study. They compared participants’ polygenic scores - which combine information from genetic material across the entire genome - with their educational exam results at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16.

“We needed a resource that had both genomic and school exam data collected from the same people,” says Dr Tim Morris, Honorary Research Fellow at the Bristol Medical School. Children of the 90s is one of the few studies in the world that holds these data. This allowed us to examine the links between the two.”

What we found

The common perception of DNA is that there are a handful of genes that have large effects, and that if we can identify these few genes, we’ll be able to predict certain outcomes. However, as Dr Morris and his colleagues showed, it is far more complicated than that.

“The vast majority of human characteristics are influenced by a huge number of genes each with a very small effect,” says Dr Morris. “The established effects that genes have on some of our characteristics can be overstated. Social and demographic processes such as the way that our parents choose each other as partners and the environments that they create for us can increase the apparent importance of genetic effects at face value.”

Studying the links between participants’ genetic information and their exam results showed that while the genetic scores modestly predicted educational achievement at each age, these predictions were not much better than using standard information known to predict educational outcomes, such as achievement at younger ages, parents’ educational attainment or family socioeconomic position. 

Influencing public understanding and policy

These findings have helped to inform a report conducted by the Government Office for Science, published in January 2022, titled Genomics Beyond Health, which outlines how current and future genomic advances may impact a number of areas including education.

Bristol’s work in this area has also strengthened the case for more research to be carried out into the genomics of education.

Dr Morris adds: “The way that our genomes affect our traits and characteristics is far more complex than was initially thought. This specific piece of work cautions against the use of genomic data in educational policy.

“Genomic information may have uses for more effective personalised medicine in the near future, but the relationship between our genes and our educational outcomes are currently far too poorly understood to be able to accurately identify an individual pupil's educational prospects. As it stands, the application of genomic data is likely to be inaccurate and unfairly discriminate against groups in society that are already under-supported and marginalised.”

What we discovered

  • Some pupils who would be predicted from their genes to be in the bottom 5% academically turned out to be in the top 5% of performers in school.
  • The evidence shows it is not possible to accurately predict how well an individual child will perform in education from their DNA.
  • Polygenic scores can be helpful to identify group level differences; however they currently have limited use for accurately predicting individual educational performance or for personalised education.
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