Genetic and environmental underpinnings of educational achievement at the end of compulsory education and beyond

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Educational achievement is of major societal interest and is crucial to students themselves, as academic achievement during compulsory education propels young individuals to different life-long trajectories. Research has shown that individual differences in educational achievement are to a substantial extent (around 60%) explained by inherited differences in children’s DNA sequence. However, most of the research to date has focused on reading and mathematics achievement during primary school education. Much less is known about the genetic and environmental underpinnings of educational achievement in secondary school across the various subjects children study. Furthermore, even less is known about educational achievement after compulsory education. It is imperative to understand why individuals differ so widely in educational achievement, to understand the causes and correlates of scholastic achievement and to inform evidence-based educational policy.
The current project seeks to increase understanding of the aetiology of individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory schooling and beyond. This thesis explores the genetic and environmental underpinnings of educational achievement in the UK, focusing on achievement at the end of compulsory education, and educational attainment in Estonia. I use data from the UK representative Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), and the Estonia representative adult sample from the Estonian Genome Centre University of Tartu (EGCUT), to investigate the following: the aetiology of educational attainment during the Soviet occupation and post Soviet era in Estonia (Chapter 2); the relationship between first and second language achievement, and general cognitive ability (Chapter 3); the proportion of heritability of educational achievement that can be explained by cognitive and non-cognitive factors at age 16 (Chapter 4); the prediction of exam results from personality (Chapter 5); and the aetiology of subject choice after compulsory education, and achievement in these chosen subjects at age 18 (Chapter 6).
The thesis provides evidence that i) genetic factors explain a larger proportion of educational attainment in a more meritocratic society, where selection to educational and occupational positions is based more on merit and ability than environmentally-driven privilege; ii) educational achievement in second language learning is highly heritable and this high heritability is only partly explained by first language achievement and intelligence; iii) the high heritability of academic achievement is explained by non-cognitive as well as cognitive factors; iv) the popular concept of Grit (perseverance and passion for long-term goals) adds little to the prediction of exam performance beyond the ‘Big Five’ personality factors; v) genetics affects both aptitude (cognitive ability) and appetite (subject choice) for learning. I conclude the thesis with a discussion about implications of the work and suggestions for future directions (Chapter 7).
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London

Cite this