Cutting education spending doesn’t need to hit results

A MONTH from now, ministers will announce whether or not they have renewed the second biggest ringfence in UK public spending: around the schools budget. One of the few protected spending areas, as part of the 2010 Spending Review settlement the budget for teaching 5 to 16 year olds was allowed to increase from £35bn to £39bn between 2010-11 and 2014-15 – representing a 0.1 per cent real terms rise each year. As ministers again have to make tough decisions and find savings across government, no area should be off limits. The education budget can share some of the burden.

In recent years, schools have been deluged with extra resources. Per pupil funding in England almost doubled in real terms over the period 1999-00 to 2009-10, from just over £3,000 to just over £6,000. As funding increased, there was a corresponding growth in the size of the workforce, with the number of teaching assistants rising from 79,000 in 2000 to 232,200 in 2012. The UK also outspent its international counterparts. The most recent data available shows that spending on primary and secondary education as a percentage of GDP is higher here than in most OECD countries, including France, Germany, Japan and the USA.

Leaving the schools budget untouched might be justifiable if higher funding is the only way to deliver improved pupil performance. Yet it is no guarantee. There is little relationship between higher per pupil funding and student performance at either primary or secondary level. Our new research shows that, on a fair comparison of per pupil funding, some schools spend twice as much as others and don’t achieve any better results.

This message will be controversial, but it should not come as a surprise. Reports commissioned by the Department for Education have found that it is not higher funding that leads to better outcomes. The Department itself has argued that “what matters isn’t the amount of money spent per pupil, but how that money is spent”, yet this is somewhat meaningless while the budget is protected.

This not only has significant implications for the ringfence now, but also as pressure continues to mount on per pupil funding in the future. Pupil numbers are projected to rise by 13 per cent over the period 2012 to 2020, from 7.01m to 7.95m. From 2000 to 2012, they fell by 3.7 per cent.

That spending can be reduced without compromising pupil performance should come as a glimmer of hope to the government as it struggles to find savings of £11bn ahead of 26 June. Lifting the ringfence on schools spending would also bring consistency to government policy. Many ministers have argued that financial pressure can drive positive changes in the delivery of services. The public service areas that have seen the biggest cuts in this Parliament are also those that have proven the most innovative.

Kimberley Trewhitt is a senior researcher at the independent think tank Reform. Its new research Must do better is available at www.reform.co.uk.