A-level maths equals money

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Researchers reveal increased earning power of up to 10 per cent. Harvey McGavin reports.

People with a maths A-level go on to earn significantly more than their peers with equivalent qualifications in different subjects, according to new research.

The study compared the incomes and educational backgrounds of 4,500 people and concluded that having a maths A-level can increase long-term earning power by 7 to 10 per cent.

Maths conferred a clear advantage even when taken by weaker students. Researchers at the centre for economic performance at the London School of Economics found that the "return" in terms of pay to maths A-level was not simply because high-ability pupils were more likely to take the subject.

People who had only scraped a pass in the subject still enjoyed a higher income later in life - even the few who got a grade E earned 8 per cent more than those who did not take maths.

"If you take maths A-level the pay off is not just if you get grade A - even less able students are still benefiting," said Dr Anna Vignoles, who conducted the research with Peter Dolton of the University of Newcastle.

The findings, to be published tomorrow in the centre's journal, CentrePiece, held true even when traditionally highly paid, maths-based occupations in banking, accounting and IT were removed from the equation and maths had a large positive effect on the earnings of graduates and non-graduates alike.

Nor were the higher salaries due to the fact that qualified people in short supply can usually command higher rates of pay. In that case, the differential could be expected to diminish over time as more people trained in the lucrative shortage area. But researchers observed the enhanced salary in both the 80s and 90s.

The study concludes: "There is clear evidence of a large positive return to maths A-level, even controlling for previous ability and further study at the graduate and post-graduate level. This result is more powerful than previous research which has only indicated that basic numeracy produces financial returns."

Interestingly, the study found no evidence of positive returns to science or language A-levels.

"A possible explanation for this result is that the maths skills learned at A-level, such as logical thinking, problem solving and statistical analysis, may be closer to those actually used in the workplace than the skills developed in other subjects," Dr Vignoles said.

"There is a lack of information - I think many people are aware that going into science may lead to a more highly-paid career than doing English, for example. But we found that, even in the same occupation, someone who did maths is doing better."

The findings back up research by Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon at Durham University, on the long-term consequences of curriculum choice. This showed that students in schools where the maths department had strong "pulling power" and recruited well onto A-level courses were better off and had a higher quality of life five years after leaving school than similarly able students who took English.


The London School of Economics research also reveals that employers oppose the broadening of A-levels as proposed by the Government (see FE Focus, page 29). This finding comes as independent schools threaten to abandon the "gold standard" exam if the changes lower standards. James Sabben-Clare, chair of the HMCgroup of leading public schools, says his members may opt for the International Baccalaureate instead.

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