Differences in exam performance between pupils attending selective and non-selective schools mirror the genetic differences between them

Emily Smith Woolley, Jean-Baptiste Pingault, Saskia Selzam, Kaili Rimfeld, Eva Krapohl, Sophie von Stumm, Kathryn Asbury, Philip S. Dale, Toby Young, Rebecca Allen, Yulia Kovas, Robert Plomin

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On average, students attending selective schools outperform their non-selective counterparts in national exams. These differences are often attributed to value added by the school, as well as factors schools use to select pupils, including ability, achievement and, in cases where schools charge tuition fees or are located in affluent areas, socioeconomic status. However, the possible role of DNA differences between students of different schools types has not yet been considered. We used a UK-representative sample of 4814 genotyped students to investigate exam performance at age 16 and genetic differences between students in three school types: state-funded, non-selective schools ('non-selective'), state-funded, selective schools ('grammar') and private schools, which are selective ('private'). We created a genome-wide polygenic score (GPS) derived from a genome-wide association study of years of education ( EduYears). We found substantial mean genetic differences between students of different school types: students in non-selective schools had lower EduYears GPS compared to those in grammar ( d  = 0.41) and private schools ( d  = 0.37). Three times as many students in the top EduYears GPS decile went to a selective school compared to the bottom decile. These results were mirrored in the exam differences between school types. However, once we controlled for factors involved in pupil selection, there were no significant genetic differences between school types, and the variance in exam scores at age 16 explained by school type dropped from 7% to <1%. These results show that genetic and exam differences between school types are primarily due to the heritable characteristics involved in pupil admission.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3
Journalnpj Science of Learning
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 23 Mar 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge the ongoing contribution of the participants in the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) and their families. TEDS is supported by a programme grant to R.P. from the UK Medical Research Council (MR/M021475/1 and previously G0901245), with additional support from the US National Institutes of Health (AG046938). The research leading to these results has also received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Frame-work Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ grant agreement n° 602768 and ERC grant agreement n° 295366. RP is supported by a Medical Research Council Professorship award (G19/2). S.S. is supported by the MRC/IoPPN Excellence Award and by the EU Framework Programme 7 (602768). E.K. and K.R. were supported by a Medical Research Council studentship. S.v.S. is supported by a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellowship award (2017–2019). Y.K. is supported by the Tomsk State University competitiveness improvement programme grant J.B.P. is a fellow of MQ: Transforming Mental Health (MQ16IP16).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, The Author(s).

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • educational achievement
  • genetics
  • polygenic score
  • selection
  • intelligence

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