I’ve been wanting for a while to get to the bottom of what’s been happening to school funding. Headteachers and campaigners argue that schools are on the edge of bankruptcy; objectively some subjects, such as music, are being cut for cost reasons; and a small number of schools claim they need to close early on Friday. On the other hand, in many ways – equipment, number of teaching assistants, facilities – schools seem considerably better funded than they were during my own school days.
As a highly political area, subject to various factors underlying the headlines, a lot of the stats you see traded about by both sides are technically accurate but misleading. The most important number in this debate is funding per pupil in real terms (i.e. after adjusting for inflation). And fortunately, I found an IFS Paper that presents all of the stats after adjusting for inflation.
Note that all percentage changes refer to real term funding, after accounting for inflation.
- During the ’80s and 90’s, primary school funding per pupil increased on average by 2.3% a year and secondary school funding per pupil by 1.5%. There were some ups and downs – e.g. a 6% per pupil drop in 1993-4 and 1995-6 – but overall it went up modestly.
- From 1999 to 2010 funding per pupil increased rapidly at 5% a year. By the end of this period both primary and secondary school funding was 65% higher per pupil than at the beginning.
- Between 2009-2010 and 2017-18 school funding per pupil fell by about 1% a year, for a total fall of 8% over this period.
- It currently stands at approximately the 2007-8 level, or about 60% higher per pupil than in 1999.
Capital spending and PFI
The figures above only include day-to-day spending on schools, not capital investment (new buildings, and so on). It’s likely that the spending between 1997 and 2010 was even higher.
However, schools do have to pay the costs of PFI repayments out of their ongoing budgets. In 2017-18 this was £1.1bn, or about 2.5% of the schools budget – meaning the overall decrease since 2010 was 10.5 rather than 8%. This isn’t an enormous change, but does add credence to the fact that schools are genuinely feeling the pressure.
For me we can take a number of things from this.
Firstly, campaigners are right to say that school funding has fallen. An 8% (or 10.5% with PFI) real terms per pupil fall over this period should not be catastrophic (any business, or for that matter any Whitehall department, regularly copes with much worse) but it is noticeable. The basic claim – that there has been a cut in funding – stands.
On the the other hand, those critiquing the problem also have a point. Real term funding per pupil is the same as in 2007-8, near the end of the New Labour years. It’s 60% – 60%! – higher than in 1999, when I was at secondary school. If we could afford five full days of school, music lessons and modern foreign languages back then, then we should certainly be able to afford them with 60% more funding.
It also seems fair to ask what we’ve achieved with this additional funding and whether it’s worth it. Real terms funding per pupil has more than doubled since 1980 and increased by 60% since 1999 alone. Based on any external measurement – performance on international tests; readiness for university; basic skills assessment; employers’ reports of workplace readiness – it’s not obvious that we’re getting any real improvement at all, and certainly nothing remotely corresponding the funding increase. Our performance on international PISA tests, taken at 15, actually show a significant drop in performance between 2000 and 2006, the period of greatest funding increase, followed by flatlining (see bottom of post for graph).
I’m in favour of spending a bit more on schools, particularly after the recent squeeze. At a minimum I’d look to bring us back up to 2010 levels by 2022, so an 8% real-terms increase per pupil. But at the end of the day, we have to ask what we’re really getting for this – and question whether some headteachers / CEOs of multi-academy trusts – are really stewarding taxpayer’s money appropriately, on the things that really matter to parents and pupils’ benefit. If we’ve got 60% more money per pupil, in real terms, than we did in 1999, there is really no justification at all for cries of crisis.
It is of course always possible that an individual school may be facing a much worse (or better) financial situation than that given by the national averages. But I wanted to unpick the claim of whether we’re facing a national crisis of school funding.