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.
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.
. 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.