Destiny’s New Assistant

7th September 2018 at 00:00
Research has reached a point where scientists believe that a ‘risk score’ based on genetics can provide a more accurate prediction of a child’s future educational outcomes than their family income. So, what will education do with this new power? Genetics researcher Kathryn Asbury explains all…

It is the summer before your four-year-old, let’s call her Ella, starts primary school and life takes on a new rhythm. Uniform and shoes have been bought, labelled and put away more reverently than they ever will be again. You have prepared Ella for the intricacies of making friends, listening to teachers and eating school dinners; you’ve told her (with feigned confidence) that she will have a wonderful time. You’re both as school-ready as you’re going to be.

And then a letter from school drops on to the mat. In it, the headteacher explains that Ella has been allocated additional resources in Reception and beyond on the basis of DNA data that was collected when she was a newborn. She explains that something in Ella’s DNA suggests that she may be at risk of finding learning more challenging than other children. She is, therefore, eligible for enrichment experiences in the form of weekly small-group and one-to-one sessions designed to support children in acquiring early literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills.

The head emphasises that this by no means guarantees that Ella will find learning difficult, but she says it is the school’s policy to respond to any known risks in order to support all children in achieving to the very best of their ability.

You read the letter again. Your daughter is going to receive extra support to help her in her learning. That’s good, right? So, why do you feel so upset?

Currently, this scenario is fictitious. We are highly unlikely to see letters like Ella’s being sent home any time soon (quite rightly). But the possibility of letters like this being sent to parents by schools can no longer be dismissed as mere science fiction.

This summer, the journal Nature Genetics published a paper that presented a polygenic risk score, known as EA3. A polygenic risk score is a combination of many genetic variants, each of which individually makes little difference to behaviour but, when combined, can predict individual differences.

We have known for a long time that human behaviour is influenced by many genes of small effect (and almost certainly many environments of small effect, too). Only now, though, are scientists beginning to pin down the individual variants involved and making predictions based upon that. Researchers are creating polygenic risk scores to predict everything from diabetes to schizophrenia.

The EA3 score can predict individual differences in education better than family income. It explains 11 per cent to 13 per cent of individual differences in how long people stay in education, and 7 per cent to 10 per cent of individual differences in cognitive ability.

And the fact that EA3 is made up of more than 1,000 genetic variants, each of which has been found to be associated with aspects of educational achievement, shows just how wrong the old idea that we could ever find a “gene for” ability or achievement really was.

EA3 is unlikely to be the end point of this research. Science in this area is progressing at a remarkable rate and it is possible that we will see the emergence of stronger and more predictive polygenic risk scores over the coming years.

We need to be ready for what comes next. We need to think very carefully about the risks and benefits of using genetic information to make decisions about education, while the question is still a hypothetical one. We need to get ready for what might lie ahead and ensure that we are prepared for every possible future.

For now, we have the time to do this. We know from medical research that there is usually a significant time lag between identifying a predictor of behaviour (or disease), such as a polygenic risk score, and being able to apply it in any meaningful way. In some cases – as with the single-gene disorder Huntington’s disease – meaningful interventions have not been forthcoming.

This time lag is our opportunity to identify the questions that need to be asked and to conduct the research required to answer them. It is our opportunity to ask if genetic research could and should ever play a role in the education system and to ensure – as far as possible – that if such a thing ever comes to pass, it is used to make society fairer, rather than less fair.

It is vital that teachers are central to this dialogue and to the development of this research agenda. Geneticists know DNA, but teachers know children.

The plus points

First, let’s look at the potential benefits of this research.

When the report on EA3 was published, several media commentators, and indeed the study’s authors, were quick to point out how useful this polygenic score is for educational research.

If, for example, psychologists want to study the relationship between phonics instruction and reading progress, we often “control for” factors such as socioeconomic status, sex and birth month. This means that we statistically remove their effects in order to get a clearer, less cluttered look at whether there is, in fact, a relationship that can’t be explained away by those other things.

If we gather DNA from children at the same time as information about phonics instruction and reading, we can now calculate EA3 scores and control for them, too, and thus get closer to understanding how the school environment works to influence reading development. We can even begin to look at the interplay between EA3 and phonics instruction and how that affects reading.

This can only be a good thing, as it can only make educational research better. And, since several large UK studies already have access to DNA data, I feel sure that this will happen, and I welcome it as a useful development in education’s progress towards becoming a truly evidence-based profession.

A second likely benefit is that this “hard” scientific evidence will reinforce the softer message coming from teachers, parents, psychologists and others that individual differences matter and must be taken into account if we are to have an education system, and pathways to employment, able to support all children and young people in achieving all that they are capable of. This, surely, should be our ultimate aim.

For far too long, we have focused on improving averages while bemoaning how difficult it is to close the gap. For far too long, we have expected all children to progress through the same hoops at the same speed.

New evidence of a genetic basis for individual differences – which, to be fair, has been available from twin and adoption studies for decades – is welcome grist to this mill. More respect for the different speeds and directions of development that teachers see in their classrooms every day is, to my mind, an educational priority that is supported by what we know about genetics and individual differences.

But research into how best to achieve this in a pragmatic way, without facilitating a culture of low expectations for some children, is needed.

Finally, a more controversial potential benefit is the one outlined in the scenario at the start of this article, in which DNA is used as an indicator of academic disadvantage and a trigger for support.

We currently allocate additional resources to children and young people in the UK in the form of the pupil premium. This is primarily based on eligibility for free school meals, a rather crude, but nonetheless practical, measure of family income or economic disadvantage. We know that, on average, children from poorer backgrounds do less well in school than children from better-off families. Free school meal eligibility, therefore, gives us a practical way of identifying children who may benefit from extra resources.

At the same time, it is inevitable that a whole load of children who would have been just fine without the extra help (beyond the actual free school meal) will also be picked up. And that seems OK – the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

But we also know that there are children at risk of low achievement who are not picked up by the free school meals screen. It is possible that EA3 can identify some of these children, allowing additional learning support to be put in place for them. Of course, because EA3 is a good predictor of differences between children in a population but a poor predictor of individual achievement, it is inevitable that some children will be identified who do not, in fact, need extra help. In other words, while pupils with a low EA3 score are likely to perform worse, on average, than pupils with a high EA3 score, there will be individuals with a low score who do well in school and individuals with a high score who do poorly.

However, as with our current approach to pupil premium, it seems logically consistent that the advantages could outweigh the disadvantages. By identifying more “at risk” pupils in this way, we may be able to narrow the gap between our highest and lowest achievers. I think it is worth giving this possibility serious consideration.

A risk worth taking?

Of course, running alongside the possible benefits of incorporating polygenic scores into education there are also clearly risks to be considered. One of the foremost among these is the possibility that being identified as “disadvantaged” at the level of DNA will cause psychological harm.

In this article’s opening example, Ella’s parent is upset when Ella is identified as being eligible for extra help because of a low polygenic score. It is possible – perhaps even likely – that such information (especially if miscommunicated and misinterpreted) could change the way teachers think of pupils; change the way parents behave with their children; and change the way children feel about themselves. It is possible that being identified as potentially disadvantaged on biological, rather than on social or economic, grounds feels different to an extent that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

The fact is, though, that we simply don’t know. This is just one of many questions in need of an answer before using DNA data in schools becomes a viable possibility. In addition, the possibility of misinformation makes the need for public education about what a polygenic score can tell us, and what it can’t, a pressing social need.

A case can also be made that using a polygenic score like EA3 to inform any kind of educational intervention is not a risk worth taking for practical reasons. It can be argued that the prediction is not specific enough and that we don’t necessarily always know how to respond to learning disadvantage in optimal ways. To make it worthwhile, we would need to be certain that we have good enough interventions in place to mitigate the risk and to enhance outcomes for learners who struggle.

Otherwise, we risk harm in the service of no clear benefit. The current emphasis on evaluating “what works” in schools from a research perspective, combined with classroom application, will help here.

Another possibility to consider is that polygenic scores might seem more useful if they offered good prediction of individual differences in a specific outcome: ie, if they could spot potential for dyslexia or autism spectrum disorder. There would be clear advantages to intervening early if this were possible, and there are good interventions available that could target the specific symptoms of these disabilities during the toddler and preschool years.

In this case, using DNA data for education might be a risk worth taking. I have a hunch that it feels different – not easy but probably easier – to be told that your child has a risk of dyslexia, rather than being told that they have a risk of being low in intelligence.

Finally, a compelling point in the case against the use of EA3 and any subsequent scores is that there are other, less risky, things that we could try first. If we want to identify and support pupils who are disadvantaged by low learning ability, then we could use IQ tests, or simply prior achievement, to do this.

Although these measures will be confounded by environmental experiences in a way that EA3 isn’t, observing pupil behaviour is always likely to be more informative than looking at their genes. In behaviour, we see genetic effects made real through their interactions with the environment and the process of development. In this model, pupils who scored significantly below average on an IQ test, or who consistently failed to meet expectations in class, would be allocated extra support via the pupil premium or a similar mechanism. It would be recognised that they have a disadvantage that is equivalent to eligibility for free school meals, regardless of their family income.

Essentially, before we reach the (currently premature) conclusion that DNA screening is the logical next step in the development of our education system, educational researchers need to focus on the identification and clear definition of learning problems, intervention design, optimal use of pupil premium, and understanding the psychological impact of different types of labels.

Ethical use of DNA

There is a third element to this discussion that needs attention. As well as considering any risks and benefits of using a polygenic score to identify academic disadvantage and to target educational interventions, it is important to consider the logistics of doing so. Using DNA data within the confines of a research project is one thing, but using it as the basis for educational intervention is very different and way more complex. It goes without saying that DNA is highly sensitive data and its use raises pressing legal and ethical questions that have not been fully addressed in the UK. For instance, who does the DNA belong to and who has the right to authorise its use?

As the science is still progressing, authorities cannot make any promises as to how DNA samples might be used in the future, and this may have serious implications for individuals. A regulatory framework for the safe and ethical use of DNA in the context of education is clearly required. This is not the sort of thing that can be cobbled together after the event.

All these logistical challenges, as well as the fact that EA3 will now come under intense scientific scrutiny, buy us time. We need to use the time lag between the publication of EA3 and its possible application to do three things.

First, we need to figure out what we need to know. Teachers, as our foremost experts on education, must be central to developing the list of questions that need to be addressed. This process will also include policymakers, lawyers, sociologists, economists and philosophers.

We then need to conduct appropriate studies to address these questions. This process will benefit from being co-constructed with teachers and will require schools to agree to participate.

Finally, we need to seriously consider what the use of DNA data to support educational interventions would really mean for society.

In summary, we can no longer be afraid to talk about genetics in education. We need to be discussing it now more than ever, before the conversation is forced upon us and our only option left is damage limitation.


Kathryn Asbury is a psychologist researching the implications of genetics for education at the University of York. She is the co-author, with Robert Plomin, of the book G is for Genes

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