If you were born with good prerequisites for going to school, which school you go to has less importance for your professional development.

Good schools compensate for genetic differences between children

If you have a child with a high genetic risk for learning difficulties, you should send them to a school that scores high on national tests, according to a new study.

“Schools where average performance is lower on the same tests, on the other hand, may have a negative effect on the child’s performance,” Rosa Cheesman says.

By genetic risk for learning difficulties, the researchers mean how many genes related to learning that children have inherited from their parents.

These genes may predispose them to longer education because they affect the children's cognitive abilities, but also because these genes are involved in the development of a curious and conscientious personality.

Cheesman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Psychology and the PROMENTA Research Centre at the University of Oslo.

The quality of the school was twice as important

“School quality was twice as important for a child with less genetic predisposition to learning than a child with an average background. The greater the genetic predisposition of the child, the less it mattered which school they attended,” Cheesman says.

The researchers already know that genes have an impact on school performance.

Cheesman has led a major study which linked genes with the results of national tests of 23,000 Norwegian children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14 in schools throughout Norway.

The results of the study have now been published in the scientific journal Nature Science of Learning.

Quality of less importance for resourceful children

The study also shows that the school you attend is less important for your academic development if you are born with a greater predisposition for attaining education.

It questions the benefits of sending resourceful children to private schools in the hope that they will become even better.

“Social development is another issue and equally important. The results might be different for mental health outcomes than for academic development, but that is something we don’t know because we haven’t investigated it in this study,” she says.

Postdoctoral fellow Rosa Catherine Gillespie Cheesman at the Department of Psychology and the PROMENTA Research Centre, University of Oslo.

A genetic L=lottery

“There are substantial genetic differences between children in how likely they are to do well in school,” Cheesman says.

She calls it a genetic lottery. It comes down to how many genes that have an impact on school performance each of us inherits from our parents.

In the study, she reveals that children with the lowest genetic starting point in terms of school performance performed the most differently from school to school.

The finding suggests major differences in quality between state schools in Norway.

Didn't lag behind

Children who inherited fewer education-linked genes performed much better in schools that scored higher on national tests, while children with similar genetic starting points performed significantly weaker in schools that performed poorly on national tests.

“Going to schools that do well on national tests is therefore most important for children with higher genetic risk of developing learning difficulties,” Cheesman emphasises. “In these schools, the children were able to perform at a similar level to the other students, while those attending schools with poorer results fared worse than the other students in their school.”

She further explains that schools that achieve good national test results boost the performance of all children, especially those children with a disadvantaged genetic starting point.

Different opportunities

“Unfortunately, we cannot yet explain why this is so. Perhaps the good schools have better academic opportunities and more teachers per pupil. We want to take a closer look at this in further studies,” says Cheesman.

In Norway, state comprehensive schools have been called one of the pillars of the welfare state and democracy. The education system is based on the principle of equality and that all children should have equal opportunities to attend a good school.

School should be free, inclusive and provide the same education to children of all walks of life, regardless of who they are, where they live or what school they attend.

According to Cheesman, however, there are differences in quality between the schools.

“Some are better than others, and these are significantly better for children with a more disadvantaged genetic starting point when it comes to schooling,” she says.

Same pattern in children with ADHD

In a similar study published by Cheesman last summer, she shows that the same principle applies to children with elevated symptoms of ADHD.

These children also performed much better in schools that scored high on national tests compared to children with medium or low ADHD symptoms.

“The results correspond with and strengthen each other’s findings. Good schools raise the performance level of all children, and compensate for those who have a genetic risk for learning difficulties,” Cheesman says. “Norwegian school authorities may want to address this disparity between schools and work to ensure that all schools can give all children a good start in life."


Cheesman et al. A population-wide gene-environment interaction study on how genes, schools, and residential areas shape achievement, Nature Science of Learning, vol. 7, 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41539-022-00145-8

Cheesman et al. How interactions between ADHD and schools affect educational achievement: a family-based genetically sensitive study, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2022. DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.13656

About the study

The researchers have only looked at the connection between genes known to affect performance at school and pupils’ and schools’ performance on the national tests. The researchers have taken all the other intermediate factors of importance in to consideration, such as the socioeconomic status of parents, so that they could isolate the relationship between genes and the importance of schools regarding the children’s performance on the national tests.

Rosa Cheesman has obtained information about the genes from the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study (MoBa). She found the children’s school results in the national tests.

National tests are conducted every autumn shortly after the start of school and involve pupils who have started Year 5, Year 8 and Year 9. The purpose of the tests is to provide schools with knowledge about their students’ basic skills in reading, arithmetic and English. The results are used by local and national education authorities to follow up individual pupils and quality development at school.

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