Sooner or later everyone takes an interest in how children are educated (usually once they get some of their own). It’s a deep parental motivation to ensure your children have the best opportunities in life, and a good education plays a central role in that. But it’s a complex topic, how do you judge what makes a good education?

Are grades a red herring?

Politicians are faced with selling education policies to the electorate, and most governments have spent decades boiling down the debate into the sound-bite simplicity of measuring policy success with exam grades. But grades aren’t the only measure of good education systems. Successful people tend to get good grades, there’s lots of data to support that view, but there is surprisingly little data for the assumption that good grades are a predictor of future life success. Which sounds like a paradox, but it isn’t. It illustrates the issue that an education system that prioritises good exam grades might not be attending to other key variables that influence how well an education helps children achieve success in later life.

Career success is a complex thing to measure

Everyone loves stories about the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Thomas Edison, Richard Branson and other big names who dropped out of education. But those people are statistical anomalies, significantly rarer than your chances of being struck by lightning. All studies agree that your career success equates to educational success. But the definition of success in that context is very nuanced.

It illustrates the issue that an education system that prioritises good exam grades might not be attending to other key variables that influence how well an education helps children achieve success in later life.

Take earning potential, for example. On average, lawyers earn more than scientists and engineers, and doctors earn more than lawyers. But an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer can earn a lot more than a brain surgeon, and a top engineer or research scientist could earn more than both. And all of them will earn less than the CEO of a listed company. Of course, earning potential isn’t the only measure of life success, but it is central to social mobility, and social mobility is what most people mean by giving a child opportunities in later life. But making the most of those opportunities depends on a range of factors. Personal fulfilment, emotional intelligence, and happiness also play a part in social mobility and earning potential, regardless of your exam results. Consider the following grade-agnostic factors in a successful education:

  • Grades are less important than tenure in education. A graduate will earn more over their lifetime (around 25-50% more, on average) than someone who leaves school at 16 or 18, and a post-graduate qualification will earn more than a bachelor’s degree. Higher levels of qualification enable better salaries and career progression more than academic attainment at the point you leave education and enter the workplace. An average grade post-grad will statistically do better than a straight A student with a lower level of qualification.


  • Social and psychological development are more important than grades. Many studies show children from affluent parents do better in their careers than children from poorer backgrounds, regardless of grades. Experts reckon this is because wealthier parents can afford to ‘enrich’ their child’s learning with experiences that encourage social and psychological development (after-school clubs, extra-curricular sports, holidays and active social lives). Other non-academic factors like age also play a part in career success, too. A study of S&P 500 CEOs found that a majority were the older children in their class intake. Older children within a peer group tend to be given more responsibilities within the classroom and on the sports field, which builds social skills and emotional intelligence. It explains why CEOs tend to be top of the class age range, but not necessarily top of the class academically.


  • Happiness influences attainment. This idea speaks directly to the importance of non-academic subjects within the curriculum. In recent years there has been a shift away from time spent in creative classes (like drama, art and music) and sports and towards more focus on academic core subjects like maths, English and science. However, studies in the US have demonstrated that team activities, sports and creative subjects develop a child’s school social network (a key element in classroom happiness) and happy children get better grades in academic subjects.

Everyone intrinsically understands the career importance of personal qualities that grades can’t measure, otherwise we wouldn’t need job interviews. Job interviews are psychological and social assessments, not exams. People who enjoy what they do, exhibit psychological maturity and have active social lives tend to do well in life. They also tend to get good grades, but even when they don’t, those non-academic outcomes of schooling will carry them further than socially undeveloped, psychologically immature people with good grades (which explains most of the successful drop-out stories we love to hear about).

This begs an interesting question. Studies suggest children have never been more stressed, or swamped with academic work. Meanwhile the creative, social aspect of schooling is in relative decline. So are schools that produce good exam results delivering a good education? Not necessarily, because exam results alone are not a reliable way to measure an effective education system.

Renegade Reading List:

At Renegade Inc. we’re all about giving people space to make up their own minds. If you want to explore this topic for yourself, here’s a bunch of interesting links we found when researching the topic, that make a good starting point for your own research. Stay curious…


Andrew Keith Walker

Andrew Keith Walker

Andrew Keith Walker is a Renegade Inc. correspondent.

Andrew Keith Walker is a professional geek, writer and speaker. He’s co-founded three successful technology startups, was the first person to interview senior UK politicians (including the UK Prime Minister) on Twitter, written ad campaigns, built games, helped set-up the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), reported on elections for the BBC, been the guest technology pundit on Sky News and radio (BBC R4 Today, PM, World at One, World Have Your Say) & written in newspapers (Independent, Guardian) and magazines (Linux User, .Net, WebUser) about digital technology, business and culture.

Twitter: @Killdozer
Andrew Keith Walker

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