Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Friday, 15 May 2009 13:23 UK

Nature, nurture and exam results

By Mike Baker

Chris Woodhead
If your parents do well, you are also likely to, Chris Woodhead says

Do genes determine how well children will do at school?

If so, are teachers and policy-makers wasting their time trying to raise academic standards amongst children who are born "not very bright?"

These controversial, indeed uncomfortable, questions are raised by comments this week from the former Chief Inspector of Schools in England, Chris Woodhead.

Now a Professor at Buckingham University, Mr Woodhead has never been one to tiptoe around fundamental issues, however explosive they may be.

In a newspaper interview, Mr Woodhead said a child's family background largely dictated educational success.

"I think it would be unlikely that large numbers of grammar school kids would come from disadvantaged areas - the genes are likely to be better if your parents are teachers, academics, lawyers," he said.

Therefore, he argued, less bright children should not be forced down the academic route but should be given practical and vocational training.

I suspect many of us would instinctively agree with Mr Woodhead's view that academic success is linked to genes.

The anecdotal evidence seems to be all around us. The children of parents who have done well in the academic education system seem, mostly, to do well themselves.

But is it really true that our chances of being born bright or not so bright depend entirely on the academic success of our parents?

And do these relative levels of mental ability remain the same as we grow up or do they vary according to the affluence of parental homes?

This nature versus nurture question might seem insoluble.

But thanks to a remarkable research project there is growing long-term evidence to suggest some insights.


The 1970 Birth Cohort Survey has followed over 17,000 babies who were born in the UK during a particular week in April 1970.

It has measured their medical, educational and social development at intervals since then.

Leon Feinstein, from the Institute of Education at the University of London, has interrogated the educational results of the survey and produced some fascinating findings about how children's ability levels vary relative to their peers over time.

Inevitably, the account of his research that follows is highly simplified, and I would certainly recommend anyone who is interested to go to his own description of the project.

The children were tested for their educational development at 22 months, 42 months, and at age five and 10.

Later they were assessed at age 26 to see what educational success they had achieved in public examinations.

Primary school children
Is it nature or nurture that makes for academic success?

The striking picture that emerges is one where ability levels at the earliest age are a strong indicator of later educational success.

Even when measured at just 22 months, children who started out in the lowest 25% of the ability range mostly remained stuck amongst the lowest achievers as adults.

The pattern of future success is even more starkly determined at 42 months, or just three and half years old, still well before the start of formal schooling.

Over 25% of those who were in the bottom quartile of ability at this age failed to achieve any educational qualifications by the age of 26.

By contrast, only 6% of the highest scoring 42 month olds failed to get qualifications by the time they were adults.

So ability levels soon after birth are a very strong predictor of future educational success.

Or, to give another example, those who were in the top 25% at 42 months were more than three times more likely to go on to get A- levels than those in the bottom 25%.

Social class

So the deterministic view about genes appears to be borne out by the evidence so far.

Educational achievement would appear to be set in stone well before children even start school.

But wait, there is more.

The evidence also shows that within this overall picture, there is a fair degree of movement.

Children who start out in the least able group can, and do, progress all the way up to the most able group.

For example, 10% of those children who were in the bottom 25% at 42 months had reached the top 25% by the age of 10.

In other words, if they had been written off as starting out in life without the genetic advantages of high ability, their longer-term academic potential would have been wasted.

Leon Feinstein's research gets even more interesting for policy-makers when he starts to look at the impact of social class on all of this.

His findings suggest that it is the combination of starting out in the lowest ability group, whilst also being in the lowest socio-economic group at birth, which more or less condemns a child to educational failure later in life.

So, if you do badly in the developmental tests at 22 months, and your parents are in low-paid manual jobs, you are likely to remain on the bottom rungs of the educational ladder.

However, children in the lowest ability groups at 22 months who are born into affluent and white-collar families do not remain stuck on the bottom levels of educational success.

Indeed - and this is perhaps the most striking finding - the children from affluent families who started out in the bottom ability group overtake those from the poorest backgrounds who started out in the top ability group.

They overtake them around about the age of 6 or 7.

In other words, it is true to say that the mental abilities you are born with do tend to shape your future academic success.

However, it is also true to say that innate ability is not determined simply by your genetic inheritance, in terms of the socio-economic background of your parents.

Bright children come from all backgrounds, not just middle-class families.

But whatever the starting point, subsequent educational success is more likely to go to those with affluent, middle-class parents.

So Chris Woodhead may well be right if he is talking about children who have already reached secondary school.

Yet early intervention, in the pre-school and early primary years - where he himself advocates teaching all children the basics - could make a real difference by militating against social class factors which have held back bright children from poorer homes.

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