Real success must come from quality

Lauren Thorpe warns that ring-fenced schools budgets may mean that tough choices are dodged and opportunities for better-value education are missed.

Sack of moneyThe Chancellor of the Exchequer again promised in last week’s budget to continue to protect school spending during 2013, along with other big-ticket areas such as health. This means that schools are once again shielded from having to make difficult choices and assess the quality of their spending.  Against a backdrop of dire Government finances, this position will become increasingly hard to defend, particularly as most other areas of public spending are already demonstrating that progress and innovation can be delivered even under budget cuts and efficiency targets. Ahead of June’s Spending Review, George Osborne should take a look at the evidence, and grasp the opportunity to change his mind.

Spending per pupil more than doubled in the decade to 2010. Despite falling pupil numbers, schools became used to annual budget increases. Yet even Department for Education research suggests a weak relationship between spending and school quality1 and the OECD observes that only 20 per cent of the variation in student performance between countries is explained by spending. School funding increases during the noughties were a result of a bias towards inputs rather than outcomes. The result was a fall in the productivity of spending as outputs rose more slowly than spending.2 With fewer than three quarters of schools considered to be good or better, it is clear that school funding could be used more effectively.

Some areas of England already seem to do this well. We can observe this by looking at the allocation of funding between local authorities. Through the Dedicated Schools Grant, per-pupil funding to local authorities ranges from £4,593 to £9,373 per pupil. There is a rationale here – some areas require additional deprivation funding and to accommodate higher levels of pay, such as Inner and Outer London. Despite this, some local authorities under lower funding settlements appear able to perform as effectively as those at the top of the spectrum, particularly in terms of Ofsted measures of attainment and teacher quality.

So what can make the difference? We know that teacher quality is the single biggest influence on pupils’ educational progress.3 Teachers are a school’s most expensive resource (with schools spending up to 80 per cent of per pupil spending on them), and their most valuable asset. Yet it is reported that fewer than six in ten lessons observed by Ofsted are good or outstanding. The quality of teaching across schools, and even across corridors, varies widely, yet this variation is not reflected in teacher pay.

Schools also need to better assess the quality of the rest of their spending. The Education Endowment Foundation, established in 2011, provides a toolkit of strategies and interventions that enhance pupil progress. These strategies range in cost and effectiveness, with the two most effective tools for improving outcomes (“feedback” and “meta-cognition and self-regulation”) costing just £100 per pupil per year each.4 In contrast, some more expensive interventions, such as employing teaching assistants, cost up to £1,000 per pupil per year and have been shown to have a negligible impact on progress.

Schools have so far not needed to make tough choices over how best to spend the funds that they have been allocated, and funding protection (such as the minimum funding guarantee) has saved them from harsh budget cuts. This will need to change. With a sharp increase in pupil numbers expected over the next five years5, the focus on improving the quality of spending should be sharpened. Schools need to raise standards, but spending more cannot be the answer.

Lauren Thorpe is the Research and Corporate Partnership Director at the independent think tank Reform.

  1. Allen, R. et al. (2012). Understanding school financial decisions. Department for Education (Report RR183).
  2. Wild, R. et al. (2009). Public service output, input and productivity: Education. Office for National Statistics (Working Paper No. 09/212).
  3. Bassett et al. (2010). Every Teacher Matters. Reform.
  4. Education Endowment Foundation. Accessed 15 March 2013.
  5. National Audit Office. (2013). Capital funding for new school places.


Share this page