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Education policy and the heritability of educational attainment


Many workers assume that genetically determined differences in intellectual ability1–5 will be influenced little by changes in educational policy or other environmental interventions6,7. Others8,9, however, have suggested that increasing equality of educational opportunity will lead to an increase in the heritability of educational attainment. The resolution of this issue has been delayed until now because of the extremely large sample sizes which would be required10. Education data on twins and their parents, from the Norwegian twin panel11,12, provide a unique opportunity to determine the impact on the heritability of educational attainment of the more liberal social and educational policies introduced in Norway after the Second World War13. As reported here, for individuals born before 1940 there is a strong effect of family background on educational attainment, accounting for 47% of the variance, though genetic factors account for an additional 41% of the variance. For females born after 1940 and before 1961, the relative importance of genetic (38–45%) and familial environmental (41–50%) differences changes very little. For males born during the same period, the broad heritability of educational attainment has increased substantially (67–74%), and the environmental impact of family background has correspondingly decreased (8–10%). For males, at least, having well-educated parents no longer predicts educational success, as measured by duration of education, independent of the individual's own innate abilities.

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Heath, A., Berg, K., Eaves, L. et al. Education policy and the heritability of educational attainment. Nature 314, 734–736 (1985).

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