School: the point is to learn, not earn

The proposal to value school subjects according to their contribution to people’s future incomes is breathtakingly philistine.

Russell McCarthy

Topics Politics

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A new private members bill in the House of Commons will propose a plan to encourage school pupils to choose GCSE and A-level subjects based on their potential to increase future earnings. The bill, proposed by Conservative MP Andrew Selous, aims to ‘help young people choose the right subjects’. The scheme will use information from tax returns to link the incomes of people currently in the workforce with the subjects that they studied at school. The data will then be published online. The plan is receiving support from across the coalition government.

It seems that Selous, and the government in general, have a very narrow view of what constitutes ‘the right subjects’. Subjects such as Latin are both academic and challenging, yet have little relevance to most people’s future careers. This does not mean that the study of Latin is not in itself worthwhile. Academic subjects should be pushed by schools precisely because they are a challenge not in spite of being one. The fact that some academic courses may lead to higher future earnings should be viewed as a happy coincidence and nothing more.

The bill follows a move by the Department for Education last week which will prevent pupils from dropping English and Maths until they have achieved a satisfactory grade at GCSE. Such a move is to be welcomed, not because proficiency in these subjects will allow people to make more money, but because these subjects have an inherent value that pupils must grasp before going out into the world.

It would be naive to suggest that a person’s subject choices are never informed by the career they intend to pursue and, ultimately, by their potential future incomes. However, the education system should not pander to this by portraying certain subjects as being more relevant to a student’s future prospects than others. This is not to say that all subjects are of equal value to students, merely that using potential future earnings as the metric to measure that value is wrong. Pupils will already be aware of the subjects they must study to become a doctor or an engineer and that these professions will probably make them a lot of money.

The contempt for the idea of the intrinsic value of education for its own sake was best summed up by schools minister David Laws: ‘Information on the earning power of different courses and subjects is vital for young people.’ No, David, it isn’t.

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Topics Politics


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