Don’t be tempted to study A-levels just for potential high pay, head warns

Teenagers should not be lured by the potential high pay associated with studying some maths and science A-levels if they do not enjoy the subjects, a leading headmistress has said.

Government figures published this month show the potential earnings attached to different A-level subjects – with higher outcomes often attached to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) courses than the humanities and languages.

But Suzie Longstaff, headmistress of girls-only Putney High School, said that A-levels in subjects such as maths and economics may be “highly prized” in terms of pay, but questioned the worth of students doing a course they do not find enjoyable.

And she suggested that the traditional careers landscape is changing, and many young people are looking for more from their working life than the traditional graduate job.

Suzie Longstaff says teenagers should take the A-level subjects they enjoy (Putney High School/PA)
Suzie Longstaff says teenagers should take the A-level subjects they enjoy (Putney High School/PA)

The Department for Education’s experimental figures look at the earnings outcomes for 16 to 18-year-olds who gained A-levels and equivalent qualifications in 2010/11 in England.

Researchers linked achievement in different subjects to earnings in the 2016/17 tax year.

The statistics show that among A-level subjects, further maths has the highest earnings outcomes, while languages courses typically taken by smaller numbers of students, such as Arabic, Greek and Urdu, have the smallest.

For most subjects, there is more than one A-level and the statistics give earnings outcomes for each A-level in the subject.

For one further maths A-level, the typical earnings outcome is £25,600, the figures show, while the median earnings associated with one physics A-level is £24,100.

Another physics A-level has a typical earnings outcome of £21,600.

And typical biology A-level earnings outcomes range from £19,300 to £20,600

Both French and Spanish A-levels have typical earnings outcomes of £19,900, Russian is £20,000, while English literature A-level outcomes range from a typical £18,400 to £19,200.

One history A-level has a typical earnings outcome of £20,100, and another £19,400, while the typical earnings for three geography A-levels listed range from £19,500 for one course to £20,900 for another.

The statistics put the typical earnings outcomes for A-level Greek at £14,700, while for Arabic it is £14,600 and Urdu is £13,900.

The figures also cover qualifications that are equivalent to A-level, and show high typical earnings outcomes for some, such as £27,700 for one economics qualification and £26,600 for an engineering course.

Ms Longstaff told the PA news agency: “Firstly, this data is just a single snapshot at quite an early stage of young people’s careers, so it’s really not the full picture. An A-level in maths or economics may be highly prized in terms of pay in the short term, but is there any point in doing it if you don’t enjoy it?

“Anyway, historians make great accountants and at Putney we have had successful medics who have made atypical A-level choices, including one student who took biology, chemistry and art.”

She added: “What we do know is that the traditional careers landscape is changing and at the same time, young people are looking for something more from their career than the traditional milk round graduate position and may even have several careers in their lifetimes.

“The increased hybridisation of jobs means that every subject has its value and I have always said: ‘Do what you enjoy as that will lead you towards a degree and career that is interesting and meaningful for you’.”

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, said young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, should have access to as much information as possible.

“This includes knowing the prospects and financial rewards for studying certain subjects and degree,” he said.

“But it is important that this is part of a broad careers offering that starts early in school. This is particularly crucial for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may not have access to the same networks and advice as their middle-class classmates.”

Vicky Gough, British Council schools adviser, said: “Over one million pupils in England speak another language at home yet only a fraction take it up at A-level, reflecting a wider problem we have in the UK in recognising the value of these languages.

“The reality is that languages such as Arabic, Mandarin, Russian or languages from the Indian subcontinent are increasingly important economically and politically.”

Professor Tom McLeish, chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee, said: “This research shows just how important maths and the sciences are for young people’s future employment opportunities, and why it makes sense to give more young people an educational experience that keeps these subject options open to them for longer.

“Whilst we cannot accurately predict what future careers will look like, an increasing number of jobs require mathematical and data skills, even outside of traditional STEM industries and roles.

“A broader and balanced education for all, combined with a stronger careers education, would encourage young people to maintain their study of mathematics and the sciences post-16 while also promoting breadth in the arts and humanities.”

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