Hurray levels: The rise in school pupils studying science and maths is welcome, but the value of a degree continues to deflate


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The Independent Online

Joy and disappointment are the yin and yang of every A-level results day. For Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, they would perhaps have arrived in equal measure. There was vindication for his stated aim of toughening up the exam and halting grade inflation: overall pass rates fell for the first time in more than 30 years – albeit by just 0.1 per cent. Similarly, his attempt to separate the brilliant from the merely very good, at the top end of the scale, has drawn reward – the only grade band to see an increase in the percentage of students who achieved it was the A*, as teachers pushed their finest students harder. The disappointment would have been more personal. As 18-year-olds around the country leapt in to the air at the request of press photographers, nobody was asking one of Britain’s most radical Education Secretaries for his opinion on the progress of a reform that started at his door.

Though absent, he deserves praise. The reasoning behind his dismissal last month had more to do with the style of his work than its substance. Steamrolling over the objections of over-stretched teachers was a grave mistake. Yet only the most partisan of commentators would object, in particular, to the reshaping of the A-level. More pupils were encouraged to take tougher subjects like science and maths this year, which will be to their own benefit and that of the country. The corresponding demise in “soft” subjects, such as general studies and critical thinking, also bodes well.

That is not to say that the spread of subject take-up is wholly satisfactory. Foreign languages declined once more, with numbers hitting a record low. Business lobbying groups have pointed out on numerous occasions that, with markets ever more internationally linked, the reliance of British pupils on their country’s native tongue looks increasingly naïve.

Exam results, of course, should not be looked at purely from an economic perspective. But at a time when youth unemployment remains high – with close to 800,000 16- to 24-year-olds out of work – it is best to wear a hard hat when considering the bigger picture. Despite the recent boom in Britain’s creative industries, many humanities graduates struggle to find work. Meanwhile, only half of the 275,000 jobs in construction and engineering were taken up last year, according to the IPPR think-tank. Students who pursue arts subjects should do so because out of dedication, not because they fail to see the interest in anything else.

That note of caution applies also to university entry. A record 500,000 places are available this year – but while A-levels appear to be increasing in worth, the value of a university degree has suffered from a form of deflation. In the less reputable institutions students are paying more and getting less: in contact time, satisfaction and employability. Aside from university, “there are other equally successful routes to a great career,” the Confederation of British Industry said in a pointed statement today. Too many employers find graduates unprepared for the world of work. More pupils should be encouraged to consider vocational courses – and more offered. Germany’s low youth unemployment rate is at least in part explained by the strength of its trainee system.

So a hearty well done is due to all our school-leavers, and we hope those who do go to university make the most of it. As for the tertiary education system itself, well, there remains a lot of work to be done.