Does education matter?


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?  


Testing my resilience

I haven’t blogged for ages so I thought that I’d throw some stream of consciousness staff at the blog to get me back into the habit.


This morning I feel ill. I woke up with a bunged up nose and a sore throat, but before I knew it I was out the door and on a train. The epidemiologists amongst the readership of AiCD will undoubtedly be shocked by my disregard for others, but the career theorists will praise me for my resilience. Resilience it is possible to argue is one of the most useful attributes that an individual can possess in their career. The ability to get up each morning and drag yourself to work regardless of whether you hate it, someone is nasty to you, you don’t fancy it today or you are feeling a bit worse for wear – that’s resilience and it is alleged that the resilient worker is able to maintain his relationship with the labour market more easily than the less resilient worker. It is also argued that the resilient put themselves in a position where they are more likely to encounter opportunities than others and therefore they have more chances at advancement.


In other words resilience is one of those things that will be rewarded in the next job if not in this. What is more the idea of career resilience takes this further. A career resilient individual is able to suffer set backs in their career without giving up. The resilient individual will experience bad luck and personal failure just like the rest of us, but they will stand back, learn from the experience and redouble their efforts to move themselves towards their vision of career happiness.  Resilience is truly a wonderful thing – even if in the enacting it can often feel quite horrible. Resilience is about focusing on the long term, learning from mistakes and maintaining a positive self-image all the while.


Because resilience is obviously an important thing many people who write about career success encourage others to develop more of it. It is sometimes portrayed as a career management skill which can be learned and probably even taught. I’m not so sure about this. A lot of our discourse focuses on “skills”. This is fair enough as skills are obviously important. But skills aren’t everything and I’m not sure that something like resilience can usefully be described as a skill. I’d probably describe resilience as an attribute, a behaviour or maybe even a value in some cases. A skill is something fairly discrete that we can learn. Juggling is a skill, laying bricks is a skill and statistical analysis is a skill, but being resilient is probably something else. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t a capacity that can be developed in yourself or others, or that we shouldn’t talk about the value of being resilient. It might however mean that we need some different approaches to the development of resilience and that there is more to career than the development of skills.


I’d be interested to hear about how others have gone about developing resilience. What kind of success have you had? Perhaps more importantly, what did you do when it didn’t work out?

Education and Employers Taskforce

You’ve probably spotted that my blogging has slowed down over recent weeks. I’ve been writing a big report which I finished last night. I’ll talk about this more once it is officially out – but hopefully all the hard work will have been worth it. This means that I’ve done some interesting things recently that I haven’t had a chance to blog about.

One of them was attending the Education and Employers Taskforce research conference at the University of Warwick. This was an interesting, if highly ecclectic conference. However you don’t need to take my word for it as the papers are now available online at


Speakers included: Hugh Lauder (University of Bath), Hans van der Loo (Shell International), Louise Archer (King’s College, London), Phillipp Grollmann (BIBB, Germany), Stephanie Allais (University of Edinburgh), Prue Huddleston (University of Warwick), Ewart Keep (University of Cardiff), Jeremy Higham (University of Leeds) and William Richardson (University of Exeter).   

What is even better is that there is video of the keynote lectures, select papers and short films from leading contributors.


Well worth a look. In particular watch Hans van der Loo and Ewart Keep as they were probably the best papers I saw on the day.