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No decline in educational achievement of graduates entering teaching and health jobs, despite squeeze on public sector pay

Neil Amin Smith, Ellen Greaves and Luke Sibieta
Press release

During the Great Recession, public sector pay increased relative to that of private sector workers. The gap in pay between public and private sector workers has since fallen back to pre-crisis levels as the pay and pensions of public sector workers have been squeezed since 2010.  Nevertheless, in new work published today, IFS researchers find little change in the educational achievement of new graduate entrants to teaching and health occupations over the last parliament.

In the new report, funded and published by the Office of Manpower Economics, we use the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education from 2006 through to 2014 (a survey of all higher education leavers in the UK each year) linked to students’ A-level or equivalent results. This allows us to look in detail at the educational achievement of graduates joining major public sector occupations over time (mainly health professionals and teachers). 

Key findings include: 

  • The average gap in pay between public and private sector workers is now back at pre-crisis levels. During the financial crisis, the pay premium experienced by public sector workers relative to those in the private sector grew from 3.7% in 2006-07 to 6.0% in 2010-11 (after accounting for key differences in the make-up of each workforce). Following the squeeze on public sector pay since 2010-11, this gap has come down to about 3.6% in 2015-16.
  • Despite the recent squeeze on pay, the average educational achievement of new graduate entrants to teaching has been steady over time. Amongst individuals who left university in 2014-15, the average A-Level results amongst those who went into teaching was equivalent to 3 A-levels and an AS level at grade B.
  • New trainee teachers in shortage subjects have relatively high levels of educational achievement. Amongst new trainee teachers, those with a degree in Physics, Maths, Computing and Modern Foreign Languages have average A-Level results well above the average for both teachers and graduates as a whole. Average educational achievement of new teachers in other subjects is lower on average, generally around the median or below for all graduates.
  • Since 2012, teachers in high-priority subjects have been eligible for large bursaries whilst training, which have grown over time. Trainee teachers with first-class degrees in Physics, Computing and Maths are now eligible for (tax-free) bursaries of over £25,000. Those with degrees in lower priority subjects (such as English and History) are not eligible for more than £9,000.
  • No evidence that larger bursaries led to an increase in average educational attainment amongst teachers in high-priority subjects, but they may have prevented a decline. The average educational achievement of trainee teachers in high-priority subjects has been largely constant over time.  For subject areas with the lowest bursaries (English, Classics and History), there is, however, evidence of a clear decline in educational achievement of new trainee teachers.
  • There are large differences in educational achievement of different health professionals. Amongst those leaving higher education in 2014-15, the average prior A-level results were equivalent to 4 A’s at A-Level for doctors, ABB at A-Level and an AS-level at grade B for NHS professions allied to medicine (e.g. radiologists), and 3 C’s at A-Level and AS-level at grade C for nurses/midwives.
  • There has been no change over time in the average A-level results of graduates becoming doctors, nurses or joining NHS professions allied to medicine (e.g. occupational therapists).

Luke Sibieta, an author of the report, said: “Despite the squeeze on the pay and pensions of public sector workers since 2010, there has been no decline in the prior educational achievement of graduates going into teaching or health occupations. However, between 2015 and 2020 public sector pay is set to decline more rapidly relative to that in the private sector. It is hard to believe this won’t affect the willingness of highly qualified individuals to choose these occupations”

Neil Amin-Smith, another author of the report, said: “Although there is clearly a quantity problem in terms of the number of Physics, Computing and Maths teachers, there is no evidence of a quality problem. Those who do go into teaching are relatively high achieving. There is some evidence that the large bursaries created for these subjects may have prevented declines in the educational achievement of new entrants, as has occurred in other subjects. Whether bursaries of over £25,000 (tax-free) represent genuine value for money for the taxpayer will be determined by whether these teachers stay in the profession beyond 1 or 2 years”


Notes to editors

1. ‘The Changing Educational Attainment of Graduate Recruits to Major Public Sector Occupations’ by Neil Amin-Smith (IFS), Ellen Greaves (IFS and University of Bristol) and Luke Sibieta (IFS) will be published on the Office for Manpower Economics website ( and IFS website ( in the morning of Monday 13 March 2017. Embargoed copies are available from Bonnie Brimstone 020 7291 4818 / 07730 667013,

2. The report was carried out under contract as part of the research programme of the Office for Manpower Economics (OME). The views and judgements expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of OME. This work was also co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Centre for Microeconomic Analysis of Public Policy at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) (grant reference: ES/M010147/1).

3. The OME provides support for the eight independent Pay Review Bodies, which make evidence-based recommendations to the Government on levels of pay for their remit groups covering 2.5 million workers – around 45 per cent of public sector staff – and a pay bill of £100 billion. In making recommendations, Review Bodies consider the need to recruit, retain and motivate suitably able and qualified people as well as affordability. In supporting these bodies, one of OME’s key functions is to provide high quality research-based technical advice drawing on economic, pay, labour market, statistical and other technical data. More information about the OME, the bodies it supports, and the research it has undertaken, may be found on its website.

4. Our measure of educational attainment refers to individuals UCAS Tariff Point Score on entry into Higher Education, which includes A-Level, Scottish Highers and other equivalent qualifications. In this press release and the main report, we often express UCAS Tariff Point Scores in terms of the equivalent number of A/AS Levels at particular grades.

Find out more

Briefing note
External publication
Public sector pay has been squeezed since public spending cuts began to take effect from 2011, and it looks set to be squeezed even further up to 2020. However, this comes on the back of an increase in public sector wages relative to those in the private sector during the Great Recession. There is ...