School Type Does Not Determine Individual Academic Success

By Maryna Mullerman ’20

Figure 1. A higher average polygenic score is associated with a better score on General Certificate of Secondary Education.

It is generally thought that students graduating from selective schools have a greater chance at higher levels of academic achievement. A study conducted by Emily Smith-Woolley and researchers from King’s College London investigated the roles of genetics and school selectivity in pupils’ academic success. The study compared the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) test scores of students from state-funded non-selective, state-funded selective, and private schools. Genetic differences, socioeconomic status (SES), and general cognitive ability were considered to determine the factors influencing academic success and achievement. The researchers predicted that heritable traits and family SES would resonate with genetic differences between students in various school types.

The study recruited 4,814 unrelated young adults — 54% females and 46% males — and collected information about their educational achievements at the age of 16, their school types, and their genotypes. The GCSE — a UK-based standard examination in English, mathematics, and science — included composite scores that were used to quantify educational achievement at the age of 16. The scientists used behavioral genome-wide association (GWA) study EduYears for trait references. A genome wide-polygenic score (GPS) was calculated using the sum of all trait-associated alleles from EduYears. Family SES was measured using parental occupations, education levels, and ages at first birth. Students’ general cognitive ability was measured using online cognitive tests. The researchers used one-way ANOVA analysis to determine the differences between the three school types.

The study found genetic variability between pupils that attended schools of different types, with non-selective estate school students showing significantly lower GPS scores. Between school types, higher GCSE scores were mostly affected by prior achievement criteria and were positively correlated with higher SES scores.

A higher average polygenic score was associated with better GCSE scores. However, most of the selective school test score advantages could be explained by family socioeconomic status, GPS, and prior achievement. The researchers concluded that school type did not have a significant impact on pupils’ academic achievement levels. The study overlooked student access to different schools and was limited to the GCSE examination. Future research could focus on more specific school types that prioritize separate subjects.


  1. E. Smith-Woolley, et al., Differences in exam performance between pupils attending selective and non-selective schools mirror the genetic differences between them. Nature Partner Journals Science of Learning 3, (2018). doi: 10.1038/s41539-018-0019-8.
  2. Image retrieved from:

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