Children’s ability to do better than their parents has as much to do with their genes as their environment

Cutting-edge DNA research from Kings College London (KCL) has suggested that whether children are socially mobile or not has as much to do with their genes as with their environment.

Previously, it was widely acknowledged that the best way to predict children’s educational attainment was to look at their parents’ educational level.

In the past, the association between parents’ and children’s level of education was thought to be environmental. However, the KCL researchers found that a child’s genes are 50% responsible for whether they are socially mobile, and can achieve higher levels of educational attainment, or not.

“The role of parent’s education in their children’s educational outcomes has previously been thought of as environmental, but our study suggests a strong genetic component too. These results show that half of the differences between whether families were socially mobile or not, can be attributed to genetic differences between them,” said Ziada Ayorech, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London.

“This tells us that if we want to reduce educational inequalities, it’s important to understand children’s genetic propensity for educational achievement. That way, we can better identify those who require more support.”

The KCL study, published today in Psychological Science, used two methods to test the role of genetics in social mobility.

Firstly, the researchers used a sample of more than 6,000 identical and non-identical twins to infer what influence genes had on educational attainment.

The researchers also used an alternative method to study genetic influences on social mobility that focuses on people’s DNA markers for educational achievement, or so-called genome-wide polygenic scores (GPS).

They found that children with higher polygenic scores completed A-levels, even if they had come from families where no parent had gone to university.

The highest polygenic scores were found in children that were raised in families with a university-educated parent, while the lowest scores were reserved for those whose parents did not attend university.

“Finding genetic influences on social mobility can be viewed as an index of equality, rather than inequality. The reason is that genetics can only play a significant role for children’s educational attainment if their environmental opportunities are relatively equal,” Dr Sophie von Stumm, senior lecturer at Goldsmiths University of London.

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