The choice of whether to pursue A-level qualifications after compulsory education is substantially influenced by genes, according to research published today (Thursday 16 June) in the journal Scientific Reports.
Scientists at Goldsmiths, University of London, King’s College London, Tomsk State University and the University of New Mexico say that the same applies when it comes to what subjects you choose and your A-level performance on the chosen subjects.
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 new study led by King’s College London and funded by the Medical Research Council shows, for the first time, that genetic factors substantially influence academic choice too.
Researchers, including Professor Yulia Kovas from the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, 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%) 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.
The research team has now called for further study to advance our understanding of educational choices and achievement throughout school years and beyond.