In praise of ‘low value’ subjects.

alexanderrodchenko800x525 (2)The English education system is built on value judgements. Measures of provider quality, qualification currency and student achievement create a web of rankings which shape our view of the system, and the resulting hierarchies impact how everyone feels about where they find themselves in that system. Schools and colleges are graded and categorized from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’. Universities are described in terms of how selective they are, with ‘high tariff’ providers regarded as ‘better’ as a result of a self-imposed elitism. Students are sorted, ranked and labelled based on their achievements at every stage. Once they start to opt for, or be limited to, different subjects or qualification routes, these are also loaded with differential value.

As we navigate our way through education, there is no escape from the metrics of success and failure. Judgements are made at every turn, and every educational decision, whether voluntary or imposed, carries with it a heavy burden of relative value which has real-world consequences. More choices mean higher stakes, more selection means more rejection, more anxiety and more dissatisfaction as well as greater inequality.

These judgements serve to create and reinforce hierarchies and widen the gulf between winners and losers; a gulf which often reflects existing class and wealth gradients. The winners are mostly those who start with ‘high value’ support, study ‘high value’ qualifications at ‘high value’ institutions and then inevitably reap the ‘highest value’ benefits the labour market has to offer. This focus on value-ranking flows from a view of education where individuals are required to invest in their personal ‘human capital’ to ensure it is as valuable as possible in a competitive labour market. But those who start with the least ‘capital’ of other sorts find that the market is rigged against them.

Is it possible to ascribe a value to a subject? Describing the value of a subject is very different from asserting that it has more value than another. Can we really say that maths has more value than history? Or that physics has more value than sociology? Or that STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) are more valuable than SHAPE subjects (Social sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy)? Surely the task of education is to introduce students to the many ways of understanding of the world, and the strength of a curriculum lies in its breadth and interconnections. All these subjects have a value simply because of how they help structure and organize what we know.

But in the neoliberal context, markets and competition require ever more differentiation, and the pressure to value, rank and commodify everything is too great. The recent history of the creation of new subject hierarchies is as baleful as that of the creation of new provider hierarchies. The English Bacc by requiring some subjects and not others is one example. Another was the invention of ‘facilitating’ A Level subjects by the Russell Group which was then taken up by the government for their performance tables for a period. More recently, the government’s Review of Qualifications at Level 3 justifies the withdrawal of funding for certain Applied General qualifications on the grounds of ‘low value’. Another iteration of this approach is the publication by the Social Mobility Commission of ‘Labour Market Value’ measures for Higher and Further Education qualifications based on the correlation between ‘positive value-add in earnings’ and different subjects and courses.

We could dismiss these attempts at an empirical ranking of subjects as bean-counting gone too far. But describing some subjects and courses as ‘high value’ requires that others are ‘low value’. This changes the way people think about the curriculum and can have serious consequences for policy and investment. For instance, public funding for 16-18 education now includes a ‘high value courses premium’ described as “additional funding to encourage delivery of selected level 3 courses in subjects that lead to higher wage returns and … enable a more productive economy” – in effect STEM subjects.

When a funding system incentivizes ‘high value’ courses, hard-pressed providers will sooner or later respond by shifting their priorities. As the ‘low value’ subjects become less attractive to both students and providers, they can become unviable and face closure. By the time the alarm bells start ringing about how vital these endangered subjects are, the infrastructure to save them might no longer exist.

Publicly funded education clearly has to demonstrate the usefulness of what it does and the benefits of the programmes it offers. But the idea that all we need is for more students to know which provision has the highest market returns is simplistic and self-defeating. The economy is dynamic, complex and multi-dimensional, and a one-track approach based purely on wage returns is simply inadequate. If we want a responsive educational offer capable of developing the full set of future human capabilities, we will need to value all kinds of human knowledge and skill as well as valuing all kinds of human work.

So, let’s celebrate all our ‘low value’ subjects, champion what they offer us and defend their contribution to the rich curriculum we need!

See also:

Learning, earning and the death of human capital. (Feb 2021)

Education: market or system? (June 2017)

What is social capital? (Jul 2016)

Life in the qualification market. (May 2016)

Market madness: condition critical. (Jun 2015)

Do qualifications create wealth? (Jan 2015)

Qualifications as currency. (Dec 2014)

‘Hindering’ subjects and ‘bad’ universities. (Oct 2014)

Image: Alexander Rodchenko, Objectless Composition no.65 (Still life) 

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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2 Responses to In praise of ‘low value’ subjects.

  1. nivekd says:

    Agreed! Well said. (Says a product of low value and FE.) The Guardian kindly printed my own take on this a couple of years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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