Last week the column of the Conservative MP Andrew Selous in my local newspaper reminded me of his work on a Private Members Bill that would see the publication of a great amount of data with the intention of highlighting the earnings potential from each subject and qualification that young people take at school and college. In the Herald & Post Thursday 3rd October 2013, he wrote:
“A few months ago, I got the chance to bring a Private Member’s Bill before Parliament and it was an education issue that I chose to raise. My Education (Information Sharing) Bill will publish for the first time information on which vocational qualifications, GCSEs and A Levels lead to the highest and lowest earning returns. It will mean that young people and their parents will get reliable information on which courses and qualifications are likely to lead to a job and higher earnings. The Bill will allow schools and universities to link earning and employment information with the subjects and qualifications schoolchildren and university students have studied. Schools, colleges and universities need the information the Bill will provide to assess their own effectiveness in creating routes to employment and good earnings. Critically they will really help young people and their parents to take much more informed decisions. I think this is a poverty reducing measure.”
As someone who assists young people (and their parents) tip toe their way through a confusing array of qualifications and routes without clear pathways towards the road of employment, I should surely be at the front of the queue to welcome this Bill, but I won’t be because I very much doubt it will have the impact Mr Selous desires for these reasons:
1. Over recent years, some secondary school curriculum’s haven’t really been designed that way
The pressure of accountability measures has greatly impacted school curriculum’s in recent years. Perhaps, to his credit, Mr Selous hopes that his Bill will help to highlight instances where schools are making curriculum decisions with themselves in mind and not the student but it will be starting from a point of irrelevance for two reasons. Firstly, the Dfe is soon to announce changes to the accountability structure with the hope to ensure broad and balanced school offers. Steps have already been taken and the list of approved qualifications that will count in these measures has already been published. The second reason is that, because the Bill relies on historical data, it will overhang with the consequences of recent years. For example, the employment value of BTEC’s in IT, Business or Sport will be greatly overstated in the data because so many students will have been made to do them. The total number of entries will increase the correlation to the average of the salary data which is to be presented to show the positive or negative salary outcomes of taking those courses.
2. Unistats already does it for degrees
The degree is still, for many, the final stage of education before employment so, combined with the implications of annual fees, the employment destination and salary data may be important factors in choosing a suitable University or degree. Replicating this data on the Dfe website or elsewhere seems nonsensical.
3. Large sections of the job market just don’t work that way
The importance of networks and building useful contacts to secure jobs before they even reach the stage where decisions are taken on “which candidate is the best qualified?” will be seemingly sidelined by this data. It would also ignore the complications of nepotism, favoritism, racism and sexism or all of the other hiring factors which influence employment and career outcomes.
4. Studies show that other inputs have an effect
The gaining of formal qualifications is not the only benefit an individual takes forward from their education. Research by the Education & Employers task-force shows just how significant an impact employer interaction at school age can have on future earning power. This impact will be completely discounted from the data as proposed.
5. Inequality in pay will distort the results
The current earnings landscape of the UK is a mixed picture of below inflation pay rises for the majority and comparatively large increases for a minority of higher earners. Combined with the static picture of social mobility in the UK this will taint the data as qualifications traditionally taken by private school students will certainly rate highly in a comparative pay measure. Will this reflect those qualifications intrinsic worth to employers? Or other factors?
6. Targeted data = informed choices. Too much data = confusion and ambivalence
Mr Selous’ Bill dovetails with the political viewpoint of his party colleague Micheal Gove that, through publication of data, parental choice will force a rise in standards from providers. Even within the ideology of that framework must come a point when the surety needed to choose is lost among the wave of statistics. The average school page (that link is to the school featured in Educating Yorkshire) on the league table website is already a wealth of information for parents to consider (alongside Ofsted reports and Parental View) results and it is unclear where this new data would sit and if it would have the prominence to influence a parents choice of school for their child.
7. Who decides the capture point?
The Unistats data mentioned earlier is based on average earnings 6 months after leaving the course. I will leave the suitability of that timescale to others but it is clear that something similar would not work for Key Stage 4 qualifications so when would it be? 1 year after the new mandatory education or training leaving age of 18? 4 years? 10? The capture point will greatly affect the salary outcomes as individuals move through their further education or career choices.
8. Historical data won’t fit into a modern job market
Which follows on from the last point. The published data would be advising people currently making decisions based on data from in people in current employment who made those decisions X number of years ago. Without straying into the hyperbole and cliché of “future jobs” it worth noting that this proposal fails to acknowledge that the requirement in skills of the job market would change in the lag mentioned above.
Of course this is not to say that education should be oblivious to the realities of employment when planning curriculum. The expectation from Government is that the FE sector should be collaborating closely with LEPS and local employers to offer provision with the aim of fulfilling the local skill needs. Through the Statutory Careers Duty, the expectation also cascades down to secondary education and there are specific inputs for employer interaction in Pre 16 provision but ultimately the data from Bill seems to be a too simplistic measure of what is a complex reality. While the ideal of providing clearer guidance is one I welcome, I’m unconvinced this Bill and the subsequent publication of the data will have either have much effect on choices or help illuminate the highly individual path through education and into the world of work we all take.