Nature or nurture: which determines educational success?

15 May 2009 BBC News Online

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.

User Comments

Charles Cornelius - 16 May 2009

It's role models, not genes

Thanks for putting this article up. It makes for thought-provoking reading but I can't agree with views of Chris Woodhead (not that I agree with much of what he says). Even Leon Feinstein doesn't make any conclusions about the causes of attainment in his report - he's content to allow the geneticists, sociologists and psychologists to argue amongst themselves!

As an educationalist, I have no doubt that the reason children from successful, confident, intelligent, articulate families become successful, confident, intelligent and articulate students is because these children have successful, confident, intelligent and articulate role models at home. It's got bugger all to do with genes!

If you want to understand why a child is the way they are, meet the parents. At parents' evenings you get to meet similar but larger versions of the child in which the personality traits of the children are mirrored in the parent: the questioning mind (or not); the ability to articulate coherent thoughts (or not); the proactive or passive personality; and so on. And I've been to houses with less-well educated parents whose eager, questioning child is given the terse, light-hearted response, "oh, you're always asking bloody questions, you!" And I've been to the houses of well-educated parents in which, when a child asks a question, they're not only given a detailed answer but are then engaged in discussion.

Well-educated parents (among them teachers) are simply better at modelling good skills and attitudes than less well-educated parents, mainly because less well-educated parents don't have them (which is partly why they were less well-educated in the first place).

What the Birth Cohort Survey shockingly reveals, though, is the miniscule effect schools have in making up for this gap. But then education in England has never been about equity (unlike countries such as Hungary, where I now live, and Finland), and so the gap becomes self-perpetuating.

Clearly schools need to do much more to develop children's personal skills and attitudes -
thinking skills, creativity, resilience, communication skills, adaptability, social skills, etc - instead of acquiring facts and then being tested on the ability to memorize them. Most teachers are aware of this and after years of being disempowered by people like Chris Woodhead, there now seems to be a movement towards the learning of skills and attitudes.

This report ought to give greater impetus to this movement, but it won't if people suggest the cause behind educational attainment is genetic, and it won't if the research is only read by policymakers. Time and time again, policy has proven to have had little impact on learning. It's teachers that need to be made aware of this kind of research so that the skills and attitudes gap that fuels the attainment gap is addressed in the classroom.

P.S. The Birth Cohort Survey can be found here and a more digestible article at

Alan Gurbutt - 16 May 2009

Nature, nurture and exam results

Mr Woodhead's thinking is flawed. He does not consider academic discrimination because he attempts to manipulate 'established' theory to support an elitist system.

Children who fail the high-stakes 11-plus are made to feel like failures. There are no second chances. Selective post-primary transfer at 11 is divisive, discriminatory and unfair. Middle-class children are more likely to climb the social ladder than those from poorer families because their parents are able to pay for coaching:

Grammar schools accept only a minority of children receiving free school meals or who have special education needs. Ofsted's admissions statistics tell the real story!

Iftikhar Ahmad - 31 Jul 2010

Free Our Schools

Free Our Schools

Bilingual Muslims children have a right, as much as any other faith group, to be taught their culture, languages and faith alongside a mainstream curriculum. More faith schools will be opened under sweeping reforms of the education system in England. There is a dire need for the growth of state funded Muslim schools to meet the growing needs and demands of the Muslim parents and children. Now the time has come that parents and community should take over the running of their local schools. Parent-run schools will give the diversity, the choice and the competition that the wealthy have in the private sector. Parents can perform a better job than the Local Authority because parents have a genuine vested interest. The Local Authority simply cannot be trusted.

The British Government is planning to make it easier to schools to “opt out” from the Local Authorities. Muslim children in state schools feel isolated and confused about who they are. This can cause dissatisfaction and lead them into criminality, and the lack of a true understanding of Islam can ultimately make them more susceptible to the teachings of fundamentalists like Christians during the middle ages and Jews in recent times in Palestine. Fundamentalism is nothing to do with Islam and Muslim; you are either a Muslim or a non-Muslim.

There are hundreds of state primary and secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion all such schools may be opted out to become Muslim Academies. This mean the Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools turned out balanced citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism. Muslim schools give young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam’s teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling role in society. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Children like discipline, structure and boundaries. Bilingual Muslim children need Bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods, who understand their needs and demands.

None of the British Muslims convicted following the riots in Bradford and Oldham in 2001 or any of those linked to the London bombings had been to Islamic schools. An American Think Tank studied the educational back ground of 300 Jihadists; none of them were educated in Pakistani Madrasas. They were all Western educated by non-Muslim teachers. Bilingual Muslim children need bilingual Muslim teachers as role models. A Cambridge University study found that single-sex classes could make a big difference for boys. They perform better in single-sex classes. The research is promising because male students in the study saw noticeable gains in the grades. The study confirms the Islamic notion that academic achievement is better in single-sex classes.
Iftikhar Ahmad

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