'Knuckling down' to school work will put £140,000 in young people's pockets, says Morgan. What? All at once?

Janet Downs's picture
OK – I’m not a trained statistician. I gulp when I see equations using expressions like β = vector of qualification coefficients and εi = error term. I take fright when I spot a heading such as ‘Wage Coefficients By Age’ which requires a four-line explanatory footnote.

But these, and more, were in the Department for Education research paper The economic value of key intermediate qualifications: estimating the returns and lifetime productivity gains to GCSEs, A levels and apprenticeships.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has interpreted this fearsome tome. It proves ‘Knuckling down and succeeding in school puts an average of £140,000 in a young person’s back pocket’, she says. The ‘in-depth research’ shows ‘achieving 5 A* to C GCSE grades, including the vital English and maths subjects, adds £80,000 to a student’s earnings over their lifetime.’

Leave aside the fact that £80,000 over a working life of 45 years is just £1,755 taxable income per year or the question whether it’s possible for lifetime earnings to appear in pockets at the start of working life instead of the end, is Morgan correct in drawing a link between educational achievement and future earnings?

The answer is, of course, yes. During the period investigated by the researchers,there was such a link. But judging the worth of education just by future earnings is to reduce education to the lowest common denominator – its monetary worth to the individual and alleged worth to the economy.


Education is more than that.

And there’s more than one way to assess the value of employment. Cleaning loos is low paid; emptying wheely bins is low paid; washing residents in care homes is low paid. But these jobs have a social value far above remuneration.

Such philosophical musings are above Morgan’s head. She’s clear the research underpins ‘the vital role of the government’s plan for education to the economy, which has put more than a million more pupils in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools than in 2010.’

But these extra good or better schools are more likely to be in the primary sector where there are few academies than in the heavily macademised secondary sector where the number of good or better schools has not grown.

There were ‘three key messages’ in the research. The first was the association acknowledged by Morgan between qualifications and lifetime earnings (or ‘productivity’, as the researchers put it). But she missed the other two:

‘Even achieving at very low levels – just 1 or 2 GCSE passes compared to none – is associated with large productivity gains.’

‘Modest incremental improvements in GCSE attainment also have sizeable lifetime productivity returns, right across the GCSE spectrum.’

It appears, then, gains also accrue to those with ‘just 1 or 2’ GCSEs. And a ‘modest’ improvement ‘right across the GCSE spectrum’ surely means gaining D rather than E also increases earnings? But according to the Government and others, anything less than a C is not 'good'.

One significant finding, missed by Morgan, was that men at every level of qualification earn more over a lifetime than women. This should perhaps have interested an education secretary more than it does. It raises important questions about women, employment, opportunities and commitments.

Instead, she uses this research to promote the Government’s education policy particularly free schools and academy sponsorship. But many of the extra places Morgan says have been created by free schools are in areas already with a surplus. And reports in the last couple of years have found academisation isn’t a silver bullet. There are cheaper and more effective ways of improving schools.

CORRECTION The article has been changed (3 March 07.09). I answered the question about whether there was a link between qualifications and earnings by saying 'It was ever thus'. This was lazy. There was a time before the decline in manufacturing, mining and heavy engineering when it was easy to obtain a job without qualifications. And these jobs were often well-paid (more in some cases than teaching). It was the supply of well-paid jobs requiring no qualifications which was partly responsible for the social mobility of post war years.

ADDENDUM. The Government's enthusiasm for schools to foster grit and character is where the 'the two worst traits of education come together: Utopia and Utility: Utopian desire for the ‘uber-character’ and the utilitarian desire for the optimum worker,' said Martin Robinson at the London Festival of Education. The transcript is here. This chimes with the stress on the monetary value of qualifications rather than the benefits of education as a whole both for individuals and society. The DfE researchers touched on that - they said they had not considered the link between education (note: they used the term 'education' not 'qualifications') and factors such as better health or crime reduction.
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mistemina's picture
Mon, 02/03/2015 - 13:38

Hi Janet, I’m not a trained statistician either. However, Google statistics says we are 65days from the next elections for Education Cabinet Secretary. Relevant do you think?

On significant finding missed by Morgan, men at every level of qualification earn more over a lifetime than women, and yet at all school levels women consistently attain better grades than men. Logical, balanced and equal, we suspects not.

Somehow having the singular ability to perpetuate the human race, means you are awarded less. Go figure?

Would love to see what would happen if women as one said 'Hang this for a game of soldiers' and left it to men to perpetuate the Human species. Just for one generation.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 02/03/2015 - 16:26

I get the impression that this latest output from Morgan heralds both a continuation and change of tack in the Conservative approach from the initiated during the Thatcher years:

"Thus the twin aims of Margaret Thatcher's education policies in the 1980s were to convert the nation's schools system from a public service into a market, and to transfer power from local authorities to central government.

The origins of this policy can be traced back to the establishment in 1955 of the Institute of Economic Affairs (lEA), a right-wing think-tank which, during the 1970s, had 'worked tirelessly to persuade the Conservative Party to abandon the post-war welfare consensus and embrace social and educational policies based on nineteenth-century free-market anti-statism' (Chitty 2004:47)."


For me it is this double edged approach that Cameron has been driving through Gove and now Morgan. The 'change of tack' I refer to is that the Conservativees now feel confident enough to make blatant links between GCSE attainment and personal income. This latest limiting and highly restrictive interpretation of the purpose and value of education is thoroughly at odds with an early act of the Coalition evidenced in its decision to withdraw the Every Child Matters strategy, which brought a close to the pursuit of its central goals that every pupil had the right to and was encouraged to:

Stay Safe
(Physically and Emotionally)

Be Healthy
(Physically and Emotionally)

Enjoy and Achieve
(within school and beyond)

Make a Positive Contribution
(within school and beyond)

Achieve Economic Well-Being
(through the foundations laid and achievements attained at school)

For me it is, then, clear, if not blindingly obvious, that the Conservatives see the state education sector as no more or less than a producer of employment fodder (or in the parlance of industrialists may be likened to factories [schools] producing widgets [employable pupils] at the most economical cost to produce the best bottom-line profit. With the latter being the Exchequer / Taxpayer). Not one jot of thought being given to the overall well-being or personal life-balance of pupils; or the families they may go on to create.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/03/2015 - 07:39

Andy - Martin Robinson, author of 'Trivium 21c', told the London Festival of Education the Government’s enthusiasm for schools to foster grit and character is where the ‘the two worst traits of education come together: Utopia and Utility: Utopian desire for the ‘uber-character’ and the utilitarian desire for the optimum worker.’

Robinson's 'optimum worker' is your 'employment fodder'.

See Addendum above for transcript of Robinson's speech.

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