Education

How Much Difference Does a Good School Make to Your Child’s Academic Achievement?

For at least 30 years genetic research has shown us that a significant determiner of who and what we are is genetically pre-determined.

This was recently confirmed by yet another study from Kings College in London:

“The degree to which students’ GCSE exam scores differ owes more to their genes than to their teachers, schools or family”

This research confirms that up to 60% of the differences in our children’s educational achievement is explained by inherited genes.  i.e. the DNA sequences we get from our parents at conception.  The rest is composed of a mixture of “nurture” type influences, such as parenting, schooling and peer group as well as a number of “random” life events, which are neither nature nor nurture.  The existing genetic research seems to indicate that peer groups is the biggest of these nurture influences and parenting made surprisingly little difference by the time we reach the age of 35.

I was very excited to read about new research that tries to understand the relative importance of schooling influences in the 40% which is nurture. For example, how much difference does a private school make compared to a State School?  How much difference does a good school make compared to a poor school?

This new research by the UK Government’s university funding body is based on the entire UK cohort who started university in 2007-08 (130,000 students) and graduated three years later. This huge study eliminates potential sampling biases and offers a robust and comprehensive examination of questions that smaller or institution-specific studies are unable to answer.  The study looked at how likely these students were to achieve firsts or 2:1s, depending on their background, and controlling for different academic grades.

The starting assumption to this study is that a student in a poor school getting the same grades as a student in a good school must be more intelligent, i.e. their superior intelligence had to compensate for their poorer academic environment.  So when they go to university the student from a poor school should do better when the are exposed to an identical academic environment.  If this was proven the study’s authors would have argued for lower offer grades by good universities to pupils from poor schools.

What did this research tell us?

1. Degree outcomes are not affected by the average performance of the school that a student attended. Specifically, a student from a low-performing school is not more likely to gain a higher degree classification than a student with the same prior educational attainment from a high-performing school. For example, regardless of ‘school type’, a student gaining AAB at A’ Level from a school in the highest 20 per cent of schools in the country has the same likelihood of gaining a first or upper second as a student gaining AAB from a school in the lowest 20 per cent of schools in the country. In both cases, the proportion gaining a first or upper second is 79 per cent. See key points 20 and 21 in the above reference.

2. Among students achieving A* and A grades at A’ Level, there was also  no statistical difference in degree attainment according to school type.

These are the grades required by elite Russell Group University applicants and Oxbridge candidates.  These data seem to back up the genetic theories that if a student is academically gifted the type of school he or she attends makes little difference to their academic achievement.  Your genes win out – at least in in an advanced, relatively socially mobile country with a good, national, free State education system.  It also seems to indicate that Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities should not be discriminating according to school type.  If they do they will dilute their high academic standards.

3. At the maximum differential, students educated at state school, achieving A-level grades of around BBC were 7% to 8% more likely to achieve a good degree than their private school peers with the same grades.

This seems to indicate that at best the standard of schooling can improve the performance of more “average” ability A’ level candidates by up to 8%.  This is much lower than I expected, considering the considerable perceived difference between good quality and poor quality schools.  However this seems to confirm the importance of other nurture influences on education, such as peer group.

4. A much smaller study by Exeter University found that someone achieving AAB at A’ Level from a low-performing school or college had the same potential to succeed as someone achieving AAA at a high-performing school.

Assuming that the differential between pupils from good or even average state schools compared to “a high performing school” is even less, it seems that the maximum benefit from a very expensive private education is a single grade increase in only one of three A’ levels.  In most cases it will be less than that.  Again it proves the majority of the educational ability is inherent to the child and independent of schooling.

Conclusions in a relatively socially mobile, developed country such as the UK:

1. The type of schooling makes no difference at all for the brightest students.

2. Russell Group and Oxbridge universities should not discriminate according to school type.

3. Schooling makes a small difference (8%) for A’ level candidates of more average ability.

4. For those Universities making offers around BBB and CCC grades there is a good case for offering pupils from poor performing schools slightly lower grades (e.g. BCC or even CCC instead of BBC).

5. Parents should look at these statistics before spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a private education.  If their intention is to get significantly better A’ level results for their children they will be disappointed.  This is poor value for money.

These research results seem to back up existing research that concluded that schooling has a limited influence on educational achievement.  At best it makes up 8% of the 40% which is open to environmental influence.  For the brightest students it makes no statistical difference.  Peer group, parenting and random life events (i.e. events which are not nature or nurture) make up the rest of the 40%.

These results will be exaggerated by social engineers and class-war socialists in order to further their case against elitism and further their positive discrimination policies.

It should be noted however that these statistics are only made possible because of the excellent job done by British teachers. They contribute to making the UK a relatively equal society.   These studies show that British society is now “equal enough” to allow talent and motivation to be rewarded regardless of the type of schooling.  In other countries, where children are more poorly educated, the type of school a child attends will make a bigger difference to their academic achievement.

Even early school provision does not make the impact many expect.  Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD’s education team has just published research showing that in a worrying number of rich-world countries more than 15% of young people are “unqualified”. Those with a problem include France, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark—all high scorers for early-years provision. A good start is not enough on its own.

It is in our interest as a society that we have the best people in the right jobs. We all benefit from a genuine meritocracy. There should be no discrimination based on colour, class or sex. But this includes “positive” discrimination too. We should not be giving people a leg up because of a perceived injustice unless we can prove beyond doubt that they really have been disadvantaged.

Further listening on the genetics of intelligence:

Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born DifferentThree BBC Radio programmes on the genetics of intelligence.

What makes some children smarter than others?  Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim Al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he’s fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored.

References:

Differences in degree outcomes: Key findings  (examines the extent to which a student’s background affects their chance of obtaining an upper second or first class degree)

Twins early development studies

Differences in students’ GCSE results owe more to genetics than environment:

IQ is in the Genes

We can’t ignore the evidence: genes affect social mobility

One Cause of Inequality: More Rich Marrying One Another

Marry Your Like: Assortative Mating and Income Inequality

Women, Men and the New Economics of Marriage

Why Poorer Students Are Underrepresented In Top Universities – an Evolutionary Perspective

Why is there an academic north-south divide in Britain?

How Much Difference Does a Good School Make to Your Child’s Academic Achievement?

Getting ’em young (The Economist looks at the impact of early years education)

Genetic influence on GCSE results

Genetics and general cognitive ability : Article : Nature

Genetics – How Intelligence Changes with Age

Access : Childhood intelligence is heritable, highly polygenic and associated with FNBP1L 

Genes may play role in educational achievement

Access : Genome-wide association studies establish that human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenic 

Genetic and environmental contributions to the covariance between occupational status, educational attainment, and IQ

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Genetic Explanations

Why Poorer Students Are Underrepresented In Top Universities – an Evolutionary Perspective

 

Poor_Students_University

“Top” universities are under pressure to recruit poor students with lower grades and to do more to recruit more pupils from “poorer” backgrounds.

7% of children go to private schools and make up a much bigger proportion of top university places.  Intuitive logic leads us to believe that it must be the private schools that make the difference. So something must be done to level the playing field for equally talented poorer children.

However, there is little hard evidence that proves conclusively that good quality private schools give an unfair advantage.  So recently the UK Government’s university funding body did some research on 132,000 students to try to prove this “causal link” between good quality schools and academic success.   If this link was proven they could demand that pupils from poorer schools should be given lower grades to enter the top universities on the assumption that it would take higher levels of intelligence to get the same grades as pupils at better schools.  Surprisingly for many, the study showed the effect of the quality of schooling was much smaller than was imagined.  Astoundingly, for the very brightest pupils the quality of schooling made no difference at all to their ultimate academic success.

So this intuitive “conclusion” that affluent children attending good schools have an unfair advantage over equally talented children at poorer schools is not supported by the facts.

The expected “causal link” between academic success and private schools failed to take into account three massive confounding factors:

1. Personality and intelligence is largely genetically inherited from our parents.

2. We do not mate randomly.  i.e. we carefully choose our sexual partners.  This is a phenomenon called “assortative mating”.

3. We now have adequate social mobility so bright children eventually find their due place in society before they have children.

So how do these factors affect society? It perfectly explains these facts:

Let’s start by looking at a few seemingly unrelated facts:

1. The research highlighted in The Times on 17th June 2013 shows that the 24 largest research universities in the Russell Group admit a lower proportion of undergraduates from state schools and from poor families than ten years ago.

2. Children from wealthier families were nearly twice as likely to leave school with five good GCSEs, including maths and English, as those from poorer families — 63% against 36%.

3. After the ludicrously embedded class system in UK was largely dismantled after the last war we saw a massive surge in social mobility, which has now come to a screeching halt.

4. It seems poor white children do worse than poor ethnic minorities despite having a similar “poor” upbringing and environment. i.e. poorer outcome, same nurture.

5. Of the 20 top local authorities in terms of sending pupils to the prestigious Russell Group universities, 19 are in London and the south. Of the 20 worst-performing councils on the same league table, 18 are in the north.

Overwhelming evidence from identical twin studies, adoption studies, molecular genetics and Mendelian genetics give us a big clue. But it is difficult to piece all the strands together causing billions of tax pounds to be wasted on closing a “perceived” gap in equality.

First we must acknowledge that talent and motivation are largely heritable (i.e. we receive them through our genes).  The massive data from identical twin / adoption studies have shown that the “environment” of pupils before World War 2 accounted for some of the differences in a person’s eventual social status by age 35. For example, an intelligent working class child born into a 1920s Welsh coal mining community had little chance of getting to university.

After World War Two there was an enormous amount of social mobility due to Grammar Schools, public school scholarship and much improved State schools.  As the social restrictions in our society were removed children with the genes that coded for talent and motivation broke free.  This happened across Britain with working class children shooting up the social scale with talent in science, engineering, law, sports and the arts.

These talented people did well.  They earned a good living, achieved a higher social status and joined the affluent middle classes.  Combine the fact that talent and motivation is largely inherited through our genes with one of the most passionate and time consuming aspects of human behaviour, i.e. finding a mate, and you have a very powerful natural force. Talented, motivated women generally seek and marry talented, motivated men.  They then generally have talented, motivated children. i.e. they cluster the genes responsible for these talented, motivated characteristics into certain sections of society. As these characteristics generally lead to higher earning potential they are more likely cluster in the affluent parts of society. Also these talented genes will move and cluster to where the best jobs are.  i.e. in London and the South East of England.

This is unfair, but I’m explaining the is not the ought. This biological process is called “assortative mating”.   As these (now middle class) children had parents who were more affluent they also had a higher chance of being sent to a private school.

So effectively, genes for talent and motivation starting leaving the working class areas (such as coal mining villages) after World War Two and became middle class. 

We would predict that eventually we would see a more polarised genetic society as the genes for talent and motivation are slowly leached out of the working class areas.  Eventually social mobility will slow down and humanities educated journalists and politicians will scratch their heads and wonder why, and then conclude that more must be done to help the talented working class children who used to exist but have now mysteriously disappeared.

Genetic studies since World War 2 (in the developed world) shows upbringing makes little difference to our eventual social status, peer groups makes some difference but the largest driver is the genes for talent and motivation we inherit from our parents.  Our upbringing, education and experiences are transient, so the  influence of different “nurture” experience on our lives will be diminished over time.  Our genes exert their influence consistently throughout our whole life.

This explains what we have seen in recent history. A strong genetic determinant of talent and motivation combined with a sudden dismantling of unfairness in society will lead to an initial surge in social mobility. However this social mobility will then fade as beneficial genes cluster into the affluent parts of society by the process of assortative mating.

The top private schools are highly selective and have rigorous academic entry requirements.  This alone would explain why private schools have a disproportionate number of students at top universities.  Assortative mating further explains why private schools and affluent families provide a disproportionate number of students to top universities on merit, and why they are providing slightly more now than 10 years ago.  As assortative mating continues its influence this trend is likely to continue, unless our politicians want to start choosing with whom we mate?

Top universities may be becoming less socially representative, but they are representing where the talent has clustered because in a relatively socially mobile environment, talented genes will cluster in affluent parts of society.

For new immigrants the social factors which have limited their progress until now are relatively recent, so we expect the genes for talent and motivation to be more numerous in poorer parts of their society as they haven’t had time to cluster in the more affluent parts of society.

This explains why poorer students from ethnic minorities out-perform their white peers. i.e. same nurture but better outcome.

As the better paid jobs in the UK are predominantly in London we could also predict that there would eventually be a migration of talented genes from other parts of the UK to the south-east of England causing an academic north-south divide. This also seems to be the case (reference and explanation).

Remember is not ought.

The breathtaking irony is that social mobility has stopped because society is more equal. Social mobility has allowed genes that denote talent and motivation to cluster in affluent parts of society by the process assortative mating.

The class-war warriors and socialists had a laudable dream of equality whereby poor working class children would be fairly and equally represented in society.  They made the assumption that talented and motivated children were thrown up by society at random.  i.e. that talented and motivated children are equally spread across class and relative affluence.  So once “equality” was achieved they imagined a world where there would be a fair representation of working class originated talent in the top echelons of society in perpetuity.

They were wrong. Society is now much more equal, but because talent and motivation are largely genetically encoded the talent has just migrated to the affluent parts of society by the process of assortative mating.

Or put another way, intelligent and motivated individuals tend to increase their social and economic status in a relatively socially mobile society. It’s not the posh getting cleverer, but the clever getting posher.

Our future is not entirely genetically determined and I have no doubt that good schools with quality teachers make a difference.  We should continue do everything we can to ensure that individuals from all parts of society have access to an excellent education and quality careers with equal opportunity to succeed on merit alone.  But if we are to have a serious debate on helping “disadvantaged” children we need to look at all causes of inequality and move away from the discredited 1960’s assumptions that it is explained by “nurture” and “class”, which is what most press articles on the subject imply. We should learn a little about evolutionary biology and genetics before making these wild assumptions.

It is in our interest as a society that we have the best people in the right jobs. We all benefit from a genuine meritocracy.  There should be no discrimination based on colour, class or sex. But this includes “positive” discrimination too. We should not be giving people a leg-up because of a perceived injustice unless we can prove beyond doubt that they really have been disadvantaged.

Governments should set their expectations correctly before spending billions more tax pounds trying to save all pupils from a “perceived” injustice. They should instead target Government spending on developing each child’s individual and innate talents and motivations.

Further listening on the genetics of intelligence:

Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born DifferentThree BBC Radio programmes on the genetics of intelligence.

What makes some children smarter than others?  Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim Al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he’s fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored.

References:

Differences in degree outcomes: Key findings  (examines the extent to which a student’s background affects their chance of obtaining an upper second or first class degree)

Twins early development studies

Differences in students’ GCSE results owe more to genetics than environment:

IQ is in the Genes

We can’t ignore the evidence: genes affect social mobility

One Cause of Inequality: More Rich Marrying One Another

Marry Your Like: Assortative Mating and Income Inequality

Women, Men and the New Economics of Marriage

Why is there an academic north-south divide in Britain?

How Much Difference Does a Good School Make to Your Child’s Academic Achievement?

Getting ’em young (The Economist looks at the impact of early years education)

Genetic influence on GCSE results

Genetics and general cognitive ability : Article : Nature

Genetics – How Intelligence Changes with Age

Access : Childhood intelligence is heritable, highly polygenic and associated with FNBP1L 

Genes may play role in educational achievement

Access : Genome-wide association studies establish that human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenic 

Genetic and environmental contributions to the covariance between occupational status, educational attainment, and IQ

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