I’ve recently read Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter? This is book makes a powerful critique of a number of key ideas that have underpinned skills and education policy for the last couple of decades. Listening to the rhetoric of the current government it seems clear to me that they have read this book and found it influential. It is therefore well worth a read if you want some insights about what the next few years might have in store.
I’ll try and set out the basics of Wolf’s argument here – but it is very likely that I won’t do it justice – so it is well worth actually reading the book. It is well written and not too long.
Wolf begins with the idea that an orthodoxy has grown up around the link between education and economic productivity. This link, she argues with reference to lots of data, is very difficult to prove. While it is possible to demonstrate that individuals gain a considerable premium from education it is much more difficult to demonstrate that society does. Wolf qualifies this main argument in a number of ways. Firstly, she argues that the provision of basic education is an essential requirement for productivity. In a modern society pretty much everybody needs to be able to read, count and use a computer. However once we get beyond this level education’s social and economic benefits are far more difficult to trace.
The second exception noted by Wolf is the area of very high level skills and innovation. An advanced country does require a small, high quality research and development sector. So in other words everyone needs basic education but only a few people need to go through an elite university system to gain the economic benefits from education. Public money would be best spent in these places and the rest of the education system left to individuals to buy if they choose. This may sound like an extremely reactionary argument (and it may be that) but Wolf makes some very good arguments that challenged a number of my assumptions.
Her principle argument is that education is a positional good. This means that education does not in itself confer status and income for an individual. Rather it is “more education” that offers this status and earning potential. As the old saying goes “in the land of the NVQ3 the NVQ4 is king”. So the scrabble for access to education is not about increasing overall societal productivity, but rather about offering individuals the chance to climb the greasy pole. As the general level of education increases, the educational level required to do each job also increases. Being a low ranking clerk is now a graduate job, but the nature of the job hasn’t really changed. Therefore the level of education in the workforce has risen but productivity hasn’t. In fact as it has taken a lot of time and money to produce these graduates it is very possible that we have actually used education to achieve a net reduction in productivity.
This kind of argument takes the sting out of our easy equation of education with social justice. Education may not be making the country either richer or fairer. So does it matter?
Wolf doesn’t really try and answer the question that entitles her own book. In between the savage critique of education for economic productivity and social mobility she occasionally gestures towards a more liberal defence of education. Education may be valuable in its own right or as a part of a democratic society etc. However she doesn’t really dwell on these questions and so the case is left for us to make.
The book actually does a lot more than I’ve discussed here. You also get an attack on vocational education, comparative studies of different educational systems and a very interesting argument about the rational basis on which people make choices about qualifications. However I think that the main points are about the failure to demonstrate a link between education and productivity and the nature of education as a positional good.
Interesting stuff. So can anyone tell me why she is wrong?