John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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The variables that help to explain educational success, or the lack of success, can be best understood in terms of, firstly, the individual’s potential to learn, secondly, the socio-economic factors that influence that individual and, thirdly, the school that they attend. Of course these elements are highly interdependent and subject to a wide range of permutations.

However there is a strong case, based on a wide range of different types of evidence, to argue that in terms of their relative significance it is the variables personal to the individual that are the most significant, followed by the socio-economic factors influencing that person followed by the school. Schools, in many ways, work as a multiplier effect  - they reinforce and embed the prevailing social and economic circumstances of their pupils.


 However in many education systems the primary focus is on the school with little reference to individual potential or socio- economic factors. This might be explained by the fact that it is a lot easier to work on the school system than to eliminate child poverty, create a society built on high trust, ensure effective parenting and create positive community relationships. Yet these are the very factors that explain the relative success of some schools and some school systems.



 Figure 1 The relative significance of the variables influencing personal achievement and life chances.

Figure 1 seeks to demonstrate, with appropriate caution, the relative significance of each of the variables – such figures can never be precise - but they do help to demonstrate the potential relative impact of each category. Shakeshaft and his colleagues (2013) have demonstrated a very positive correlation between genetic factors and performance at school, in particular at Key Stage 4:

Our results indicate that individual differences in educational achievement are just as strong at the end of compulsory education at age 16 as they are in the earlier school years. Heritability is substantial not only for the core subjects of English (52%), mathematics (55%) and science (58%), but also for the (usually optional) humanities subjects in our dataset (42%).

Also important is the finding that shared environment accounts for much less variance than does genetics. On average, genetics accounts for almost twice as much of the variance of GCSE scores (53%) as does shared environment (30%), even though shared environmental influences include all family, neighbourhood, and school influences that are shared by members of twin pairs growing up together and attending the same school.


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