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New research genes affects A-level choice and achievement

Posted on 16/06/2016
Alevel-student

The choice of whether to pursue A-level qualifications after compulsory education is substantially influenced by genes, according to researchers from King’s College London. The same goes for what subjects you choose and your A-level performance on the chosen subjects, finds their study published today in Scientific Reports.

Based on these findings, the study’s authors are calling for children to be given greater choice in their curricula, allowing them to personalise their education before the age of 16.

After completing compulsory education at the age of 16, students in England can choose either to start an apprenticeship or continue their studies at A-level in preparation for university. Approximately half of students choose to do A-levels and they freely choose which subjects to study. This is the first time in their educational experience that students are able to shape their learning according to a wide range of options.

 As differences in achievement and subject choices will propel young people on a variety of lifelong trajectories, it is important to understand what influences these decisions.

Previous research has shown that, to a large extent, differences in educational achievement can be explained by inherited differences in children’s DNA sequence. This King’s College London study – funded by the Medical Research Council - shows, for the first time, that genetic factors substantially influence academic choice too.

The researchers analysed data from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), which included more than 6,500 twin pairs in the UK. They found that choosing to continue studies at A-level was influenced in equal measure by genetic (44%) factors and environmental factors shared by siblings growing up in the same home (47%), for example schools, neighbourhoods or the home environment.

Choosing specific A-level subjects was found to have greater genetic influence (50% for humanities and 60% for STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - subjects) and less influence from shared environment (18% for humanities, 23% for STEM). Genetic factors affected subject choice across a wide range of school subjects, including second language learning, mathematics and psychology.

The authors suggest that students make A-level choices in part on the basis of previous educational achievement, which is substantially heritable. Another possibility is that general intelligence, which also shows substantial heritability, contributes to these choices independently from previous achievement.

The researchers also found that the shared environment substantially influenced whether or not students chose to pursue A-levels, which is logical given that parents and teachers are likely to influence both members of a twin pair to make similar choices. However, this finding is particularly notable given that it is rare to find such a major role for the shared environment; for example shared environmental effects are less than 25% for academic achievement and negligible for personality traits.

Achievement after two years on students’ chosen A-level subjects was highly heritable (65% for STEM subjects and 49% for humanities).

Kaili Rimfeld from the MRC Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre at King’s College London, said: ‘DNA differences appear to strongly influence academic appetite as well as aptitude, which supports a genetic way of thinking about education where individuals actively create their own education experiences, in part based on their genetic propensities.

‘Our results support educational trends away from a one-size-fits-all curriculum towards a more personalised approach to learning which would help every child reach their maximum potential.’

Professor Robert Plomin, also from the MRC SGDP Centre at King’s College London, said: ‘Our study suggests that children are not passive recipients of instruction, but instead are active participants in their path to knowledge. In a more personalised education system, children would choose educational subjects early, allowing them to focus on their strengths and weaknesses. However, until the age of 16, students in England and Wales have little choice. It is only at the age of 16 that students are free to choose their subjects from over 80 different options.

‘Further research is now required to advance our understanding of educational choices and achievement throughout school years and beyond.’

For more information, watch PhD students Emily Smith-Woolley and Ziada Ayorech discuss whether to pursue A-level qualifications after compulsory education is substantially influenced by genes.

Notes to editors

For further media information please contact Louise Pratt, Public Relations and Communications Manager, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience on louise.a.pratt@kcl.ac.uk /+44 (0) 20 7848 5378 or +44 (0) 78 5091 9020

About King’s College London 

King's College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2015/16 QS World University Rankings) and among the oldest in England. King's has more than 26,500 students (of whom nearly 10,400 are graduate students) from some 150 countries worldwide, and nearly 6,900 staff. The uni-versity is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) King’s was ranked 6th nationally in the ‘power’ ranking, which takes into account both the quality and quantity of research activity, and 7th for quality accord-ing to Times Higher Education rankings. Eighty-four per cent of research at King’s was deemed ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ (3* and 4*). The university is in the top seven UK univer-sities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of more than £600 million.

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Aca-demic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: www.kingshealthpartners.org.

 King’s fundraising campaign – World questions | King’s answers – created to address some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity has reached its £500 million target 18 months ahead of schedule. The university is now aiming to build on this success and raise a further £100 million by the end of 2015, to fund vital research, deliver innovative new treatments and to support scholar-ships. The campaign’s five priority areas are neuroscience and mental health, leadership and socie-ty, cancer, global power and children's health. More information about the campaign is available at www.kcl.ac.uk/kingsanswers

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