Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Many Genes Play a Role in Educational Attainment, Enormous Genetic Study Finds

Finding the genetics of IQ is still in its infancy but results are coming in

In the largest genetics study ever published in a scientific journal, an international team of scientists on Monday identified more than a thousand variations in human genes that influence how long people stay in school.

Educational attainment has attracted great interest from researchers in recent years, because it is linked to many other aspects of people’s lives, including their income as adults, overall health and even life span.

The newly discovered gene variants account for just a fraction of the differences in education observed between groups of people. Environmental influences, which may include family wealth or parental education, together play a bigger role.

Still, scientists have long known that genetic makeup explains some of the differences in time spent in school. Their hope is that the data can be used to gain a better understanding of what educators must do to keep children in school longer.

With a fuller understanding of the influences exerted by genes, scientists think they will be able to better measure what happens when they try to improve a child’s learning environment.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, finds that many of the genetic variations implicated in educational attainment are involved in how neurons communicate in the brain.

A striking number are involved in relaying signals out of neurons and into neighboring ones through connections called synapses.

The findings are based on genetic sequencing of more than 1.1 million people. But the subjects were all white people of European descent. In order to maximize the odds of discovering genetic links, the scientists say they needed a very large, homogeneous sample.

When the team tried to use these genetic variants to explain differences in schooling time among African-Americans, the predictions failed.

The researchers also found that genes don’t have a uniform effect: The influences of the genes varied from country to country. The researchers could not pinpoint the cause of these differences.

But if educators in one country emphasize memory over problem-solving in math classes, for example, then some gene variants may provide a bigger benefit to some students than others, the scientists speculated.

A truly global understanding of these genetic influences will require similarly huge studies of people of other ancestries, the researchers said.

The data cannot be used to predict educational attainment in any particular schoolchild. The researchers cautioned that the genetic patterns are seen only in large groups; in each child, genetics will play only a small role in how long she stays in school.

“It’s not really meaningful for individuals,” said Aysu Okbay, a geneticist at Vrije University in Amsterdam and a co-author of the new study.

The first glimpses of genetic influences on education attainment came in the 1970s. In the era before cheap DNA sequencing, researchers studied families.

Identical twins, who share the same set of genes, tended to have more similar track records in school than did fraternal twins, researchers found. Later studies that compared siblings to half-siblings, or to siblings adopted into different families, also confirmed a modest genetic influence.

In the early 2000s, a few social scientists tried to confirm links between particular genes and schooling, but their efforts largely failed. One of the most important reasons was the small size of their studies.

In 2011, Daniel J. Benjamin, a behavioral economist at the University of Southern California, and his colleagues launched a large-scale expedition into human DNA. They formed the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium to bring together information on thousands of subjects.

The researchers piggybacked their educational research on medical research. When people volunteer for a genetic study on, say, blood pressure, they often fill out questionnaires about various aspects of their lives. One of the most common questions is how much education they’ve had.

By 2016, Dr. Benjamin and his colleagues had studied nearly 300,000 people and had linked 71 gene variants to education. But then two major developments in DNA testing helped the team greatly expand their research.

Recently, a genetic database called UK Biobank was launched in Britain. Some 442,183 of those genetic profiles were added to the consortium’s study. And after 23andMe scientists began sharing information about customers who volunteer to be part of scientific research, the team included 365,538 of those profiles.

Studying the DNA of these people, Dr. Benjamin and his colleagues found a number of genetic variations that were unusually common in people who finished a lot of school, and others that were more common in people who left school early.

Often, the scientists weren’t able to rule out chance as the explanation. But 1,271 of these variants were linked so tightly to schooling that they could not be dismissed.

Still, the association between each gene variant and education was very weak. When the researchers compared groups of people with or without a particular variant, their average time in school differed only by days.

The researchers scanned the DNA surrounding these influential variants and found an intriguing pattern.

“They’re not just randomly scattered around the genome,” said James J. Lee, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the new study.

The variants are linked to genes active in the brain, helping neurons to form connections. A key to educational attainment may not be how quickly information is acquired, but how quickly it can be shared between various regions.

“Maybe it’s not about how fast a signal can zip along a cable,” Dr. Lee said. “It’s about the complexity of the connections between point A and B.”

But the genetic links suggest another, perhaps stranger possibility: Some variants linked to education work not in the brains of students, but in the people they inherited the variants from — their parents.

By somehow shaping the behavior of parents, these variants may alter the environments in which children grow up in a way that helps or impinges on time spent in school.

Based on their findings, Dr. Benjamin and his colleagues figured out how to calculate a genetic “score” for educational success. The more variants linked to staying in school longer, the higher an individual’s score.

The researchers calculated a score for a group of 4,775 Americans, ranking them into five groups. The researchers found that 12 percent of people in the lowest fifth finished college. Among people in the top fifth, 57 percent finished college.

A similar result emerged when the scientists looked at how many people in each group had to repeat a grade in school. In the lowest fifth, 29 percent did, while in the top fifth, only 8 percent did.

But when Dr. Benjamin and his colleagues calculated scores for African-Americans, it failed to predict how well different groups had done in school. One likely reason is that genetic markers aren’t reliable guides to how genes influence traits in different populations.

Dr. Benjamin and his colleagues hope to grow their study to 2 million people or more, and expect to find thousands more genes linked to education.

He and other researchers plan to carry out other studies on behavior based on gene profiles of one million people or more.

Indeed, the latest study is just the newest in what promises to be a tide of huge genetic studies. Research on insomnia based on 1.3 million people, for example, was posted to an open access website earlier this year. A number of similar studies, each involving over a million people, are moving toward publication.

“It’s all going to happen really fast,” said Dr. Benjamin.


Jewish school in UK criticised for redacting 'bare wrists' from books

A state-funded Jewish faith school has been classed as inadequate after Ofsted inspectors found teachers and school governors heavily censoring books and pictures, deleting references to reproduction and child protection helpline contact details.

The inspection of Yesodey Hatorah senior girls’ school, a voluntary-aided school catering to the Orthodox Chasidic Jewish community in north London, revealed that the “vast majority of texts” in the school library had been censored or redacted, while inspectors were told by staff that the school would not allow pupils to visit the Tate Modern.

The report said large sections of GCSE English textbooks had been deemed as inappropriate by staff and removed or redacted.

“In addition, texts such as Sherlock Holmes have had sections of text redacted. In science, pupils are not permitted to study animal or human reproduction, and other areas such as global warming are restricted. Leaders do not fulfil their statutory duty to provide sex and relationships education,” the inspectors reported.

In the library, “staff had systematically gone through every book to blank out any bare skin on ankles, wrists or necks”, the inspectors found.

The school’s leaders “were unable to explain the origin of the detailed policy on redaction, or who decides what is redacted in texts across the school”.

The report’s conclusions, which came despite findings that pupils were happy and safe at the school, drew an angry response from the chair of governors, who accused Ofsted of having a “secularist agenda” that put faith schools in an impossible position.

Jewish leaders have previously complained that Ofsted has targeted Jewish faith schools, with a number of independent Orthodox Jewish schools being described as inadequate or deregulated, resulting in their probable closure.

Although inspectors found the school’s policies were supported by parents, Ofsted was highly critical of the lack of careers advice provided for pupils and for potential safeguarding issues.

“Leaders deliberately restrict pupils’ access to advice and guidance about how to keep safe in the world, including the redaction of helpline numbers from books. This prevents pupils protecting themselves, because they are unable to seek independent, confidential advice if required,” the report said.

During the inspection the school agreed to display NSPCC helpline numbers in the pupils’ toilets.

Inspectors noted that “pupils have no opportunity to compete in inter-school sport, participate in events or visit universities”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) said: “This report raises significant concerns. The regional schools commissioner will work with Yesodey Hatorah and its governors to find an appropriate solution to ensure rapid improvement. This includes the potential academisation of the school.”

Yesodey Hatorah is the latest state faith school to fall foul of new regulations requiring pupils to be prepared for life in Britain, including respect for other faiths and ethnic groups, introduced after the 2014 panic over majority-Muslim state schools in Birmingham.

The Ofsted visit was sparked after Humanists UK, a secular campaigning group, published details of the school’s censored textbooks this year, including removing a reference to homosexuality from a section on Nazi beliefs.

A private Chasidic boys school in Stamford Hill, Getters Talmud Torah, was deregistered by the DfE this year, after inspectors found the school failed to teach any secular subjects other than maths and English.

Yesodey Hatorah’s leadership had previously dismissed the redactions as part of a long-established policy to “protect our girls from sexualisation in line with our parents’ wishes and religious beliefs”.

But after the latest report, Theo Bibelman, Yesodey Hatorah’s chair of governors, said: “We were appalled at the way the Ofsted inspectors treated our staff and students and we have made that clear. It seems that unless we agree with the secularist agenda of Ofsted [in] London we cannot comply with their inspection criteria,” Bibelman said.

“This inspection was never about us, it is about Ofsted using their unfettered powers to try to force faith schools to comply with their agenda or fail.”

A spokesperson for Ofsted said: “Faith schools are entirely at liberty to teach the tenets of their faith on social issues. However, they must also comply with the law and ensure that pupils are properly prepared for life in modern Britain. The vast majority of faith schools see no tension in doing this.”

The school was also unhappy that Ofsted appeared sceptical of Yesodey Hatorah’s record of above-average results in GCSE exams.

Inspectors noted that “the majority of teachers are unqualified and many are inexperienced” and said that for some year groups “restricted curriculum, redaction of texts and pupils’ limited access to information hinder their learning and progress”.

Inspectors also criticised poor handwriting and incomplete work, as well as a lack of progress in spelling, punctuation and grammar. “Examination results reflect higher standards than those seen in books,” the report stated.


Australia: All public schools will be FORCED to offer girls the option to wear pants instead of skirts as part of a 'new modern makeover' of uniform policy

Girls will be offered the option to wear pants or shorts instead of skirts and dresses at every public school as part of a statewide 'modern makeover' of uniform policy.

NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes this week scrapped a 24-page school uniform document in favour of a new two-page policy, The Daily Telegraph reported.

While it had previously been at a school's discretion to allow girls to choose their uniform, the new policy will make it mandatory to offer a shorts or pants option.    

'Parents asked for a better policy and I am proud to provide one. It is important to remember families need to have access to the most affordable uniforms possible,' Mr Stokes said.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian supported the move, noting that in her school days there was no uniform option for girls. 'The new modern makeover makes uniforms practical and comfortable for students, with affordability for parents front and centre,' Ms Berejiklian said.

The move brings the state's uniform policy in line with Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia - and promises to protect working families against rising costs. Queensland schoolgirls will be offered the choice to wear pants or shorts from 2019.

'In today's day and age, there should be no reason why shorts and pants aren't made part of the school formal uniform,' the state's Education Minister Grace Grace told ABC radio earlier this year.

That move followed the decision in September which declared girls at all Victoria state schools would no longer be forced to wear dresses and skirts.

Education Minister James Merlino said at the time the changes made 'common sense' and that schools had to provide options 'as far as practicable'.

'It's a relatively minor change to ensure that our expectation is that every school does provide the option of shorts and pants for girls,' Mr Merlino told 3AW.


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