On those school cuts

Some outfit campaigning against cuts to expenditure on schools has found its way onto my Facebook feed. Let’s take a look:

The Government has cut school funding by £2.8 billion since 2015. Between now and 2022, it wants to cut £8.9 billion more. Head teachers are already speaking of the impossible job they have to balance the books and offer the best education for all children. Yet there is worse to come.

If you or I are told we must take a pay cut, it means we get a pay cut and take home less money. But when an organisation made up wholly of teachers’ unions claim school funding has been cut, what they mean is:

Recent research on the subject has shown that day-to-day or current spending per pupil in England was largely frozen in real terms between 2010 and 2011 and 2015 and 2016.

In other words, there have been no cuts as any normal person would understand them.

As she hit the campaign trail, Theresa May repeated a claim she has made several times before, including during Prime Minister’s Questions in April, that education spending is at its highest ever level.


A Department of Education blog on school funding also details how high school funding is “at its highest on record at more than £40 billion in 2016 to 2017 and is set to rise to £42 billion in 2019 to 2020, with increasing pupil numbers.”

So is it true?

When Theresa May made the claim, she was talking specifically about education in England, and she is referring to the “dedicated schools grant”. This is the whole block of money going to schools in England every year.

When Theresa May was talking about overall expenditure on education she was talking about overall expenditure on education. Boo! Theresa May, boo!

But while the £40 billion number is about accurate and it is true that this is higher than in previous years, it is not the whole story.
This is because in terms of education spending, it is the “per pupil expenditure” – literally the amount spent on each pupil – that is relevant and not the total amount of the “dedicated schools grant”.

Where to begin? Firstly, the overall expenditure is an important figure; even if per-pupil expenditure is important, that does not negate the importance of the overall expenditure level. Secondly, if the overall expenditure is at a record high but the per-pupil amount is unsatisfactory, that can only mean we have seen pupil numbers increase rather dramatically. Was there a sudden spike in births a few years back? Or is there another reason? The rent-seekers running this website don’t say.

And don’t forget that we were told:

Recent research on the subject has shown that day-to-day or current spending per pupil in England was largely frozen in real terms between 2010 and 2011 and 2015 and 2016.

So overall expenditure is at a record high, and per-pupil funding is holding firm. What’s the issue, again?

Moreover, from 2015 to 2016 onwards school spending has been frozen in cash terms, which is likely to translate into a real terms reduction of around 6.5% between 2010-11 and 2019-20.

I assume they’re talking about inflation. If this is the basis for the hysteria over savage cuts to the school budget, they’re in for a long campaign.

This would be the biggest real-term fall in school spending per pupil for 30 years.

As Wikipedia would say: citation needed.

The outlook for spending per student in further education (age 16-18) is much worse, with the same research forecasting that this is likely to fall by around 13% between 2010 and 2011 and 2019 and 2020.

So if it isn’t just down to inflation, it must be due to increased pupil numbers. Who are they?

Research has also shown that education plays an important role in generating improved productivity and growth and this is also acknowledged in the government’s own industrial strategy. It makes no sense then to actually disinvest in a “key pillar” of the industrial strategy.

Freezing overall expenditure at a record high is now disinvestment. I guess this is what happens when teachers are gifted final-salary pensions.

And as we learn later:

The author is correct to point out that per pupil spending is at least as important as the overall total. But the research mentioned above shows that even this was still at a historical high in 2015 and 2016 – the most recent complete school year. The same research shows that in real terms – allowing for inflation – per pupil spending has doubled since the 1997 to 1998 school year. It does predict that a freeze on total spending will lead to a real terms decrease in successive years, but this had not happened at time of writing.

Nor does it mean that the money is being spent wisely or in the most effective fashion by governments.

Even the fact page the unions link to doesn’t do much to support their cause.

And this video is telling: it says one school is due to see a reduction in funding of £2,350 per pupil. Either there is going to be a massive influx of pupils coming from somewhere (and I suspect we all know where), or it’s being lost to inflation meaning they are receiving funding which would make Eton blush.

So in summary: there are no cuts, and this is merely an attempt by teachers’ unions to snaffle yet more taxpayer monies for themselves.

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12 thoughts on “On those school cuts

  1. It’s like the Thatcher “cuts”: largely a figment of the imagination. The old girl struggled to stop the increase in government expenditure as a fraction of GDP but she didn’t succeed until her last couple of years, and then only because there was an unexpected jump in growth of GDP.

    When she left office the % of GDP spent by government was still higher than it had been when Socialist Saint Clem Attlee left office.

  2. In 99 per cent of cases I would agree with this, but… there is a case for saying education really is being cut back. Now before the righteous explode in anger that I might dare question this (and trust me I do not believe in cuts in the vast majority of cases), a relative of mine who teaches A levels has been told, by his comprehensive school, that he must expect classes of up to 38 pupils and at the same time his subject — physics — which had five lessons a week to ensure the best response to learning (I know, it’s all about exam results) is to be reduced to four lessons a week. So more students — some of which he concedes are imported yoofs, not UK born — complete with language difficulties but with less teaching time. His wife, who also teaches, has been told she cannot have teaching assistants at her place of work.

    Now you can say, and I would agree, that learning essentially has to take place at home and any school can only do so much and if da yoof doesn’t want to learn you can’t make them. Got it. But her job will be harder without assistance, especially for those whose years in junior school and at home gave them no encouragement to read, let alone behave properly. It falls on her to make sure that each student meets whatever targets are set, and do it without help.

    That might be considered a cut, especially as she has been told that her college needs to save money.

    Some years ago I did some teaching. I taught some mixed ability students age 16 to 18 various things about computers. They weren’t that interested; some signed up because there was a weekly Education Maintenance Allowance and anyway, college was a social event. Some of the kids were good human beings, some were the dross of humanity, most were dull and unenthusiastic. I had one class of 30 students, but the room allocated to me could only seat 24 at a computer (25 if I gave up my teacher’s computer) and so some would simply sit on the floor at the back and play on their mobile phones. By the way, mobile phones were banned but when a colleague of mine told one kid to stop using theirs and took it off him, she was in trouble from the college. Rules were made but never enforced.

    (An aside; One colleague I had worked also at a separate college and they had three marks for the students: Present, Absent and PUP. That was ‘Present but Unproductive.” I had a good few of those.)

    The point was that rooms couldn’t be expanded and the college needed the students to stay the course, even sat on the floor, because that was how the college got funded by the government. If a kid left to take a job it was considered a black mark, by the way, because he had “left before completing the course.” there as no money for Fred who left early to join the navy and, of all things, want to be in submarines.

    If we had to get the kids to do some writing it was down to the teacher to provide paper and pens by scraping round the staff room. The kids, despite being paid EMA, never had a notebook or a pen. When the college high-ups questioned the provision of pens and paper as it cost money and really should be cut back, they wouldn’t accept that the kids had no intentions of coming to lessons prepared. We were told we would have to persuade them to be prepared. If the college couldn’t provide state of the art computers the kids grumbled and some did nothing as a result. They all knew what a good computer was and were incensed the college didn’t upgrade every computer for their benefit.

    Departments at the college I was at before retirement were, after I left, combined to create bigger class sizes. Teachers who left were replaced by part-timers (like me) and if they didn’t show up — not unheard off as one colleague simply walked out in the middle of one lesson saying he didn’t need this — then someone had to be found to take his place, not from outside but from those already there. In other words, a sort of cut if you regard money-saving exercises as that.

    I don’t doubt there is a huge waste of money somewhere in education, but what I know and what I saw tells me that there really are cuts and reductions. Maybe there has to be because possibly the gravy train has gone on too long. I resented, for example, having to teach English and maths at a basic level because 16 year olds had never been taught it at junior and comprehensive school though one kid I taught who had been finally dumped by his school, at age 14, on the college had spent a lot of his time away on ‘field trips’ to places like theme parks because he was so disruptive in classes. He was always off on his jaunts when Ofsted was due to call in.

    Perhaps all school kids can be dumped on the local college and that will save money there. If you can’t teach them and don’t have to, then there are huge savings to be made. but don’t expect those ‘at the chalk face’ to take up the slack all the time and do more with less time, less resources.

  3. Watcher,

    I can well believe that class sizes are increasing and that more pressure is being brought on teachers to do more. I can also believe that the amount spent per pupil *on actual teaching* is being cut, i.e. more and more of the funding is being hoovered up by the administration and LEAs.

    Now have a guess how much of this the teachers’ unions acknowledge, let alone want to address?

  4. I summarise
    I am no good at Latin, the complete works of Victor Hugo or 5 dimensional physics.
    So I send my kids to school, where I expect to be able to supervise my sub contractors, who are specialists.
    Except I can’t. What normal business would put up with tis BS?

  5. I’ve always been in favour of selective education, but one thing I learned from​ teaching is the enormous negitive effect of a disruptive pupil, so that a greater “bang per buck” would be achieved by filtering out the uneducable, not the easily educated. That would be assuming, of course, that your aim was to produce the largest possible number of well educated children.

  6. Watcher,

    I understand the problems you had, and I sympathise.

    But – why do we do it? Why do we insist on young people staying at school until 18 years of age when they don’t want to be there, and the school doesn’t want them (except for the payments they receive)?

    Why not let them leave at 14 for a job or apprenticeship? We could allow them to go, but continue their funding to the school as if they were still there. Everybody wins.

    At the moment, schools act as warehouses to keep some children off the streets. If that is going to continue, then give them entertainments – sport, video games, music – whatever keeps them occupied and out of the way. Primaries should be able to teach the 3Rs – and hope to instil a love of learning for its own sake. Little else can be achieved for most pupils.

    Continuous learning is much easier these days – the Internet, online courses, cheap e-books etc. etc. School isn’t necessary for those who want to learn, though it may be beneficial. It isn’t useful to those who don’t want to learn – don’t make them be there.

  7. This jumped out at me:

    “The same research shows that in real terms – allowing for inflation – per pupil spending has doubled since the 1997 to 1998 school year.”

    Being of a similar age to you Tim, do you too remember the educational horrors of the late nineties? How everything was falling apart?

    No. me neither.

    WTF, really WTF, have they found to spend twice as much money per head on?

  8. @Jack Hughes:

    I appreciate your sympathy but it wasn’t my first choice of career at age 62. Nonetheless I learned something about people.

    You make very good points. I agree and would concede the tiny bit of teaching I did had little effect and at that age was unlikely to make any difference. The clay, as it were, had been shaped, fired and varnished by age16. It did though keep the kids off the streets and may have taught them some small amount about life: the day I explained to a group of them casually about constitutional monarchy — not sure how but the subject had come up during a computer lesson and frankly, such unexpected discussions were the best bits of my part time work there — and I could see by the look in their eyes that they ‘got it’ (really, their focus changes and you can tell they grasp something). I am therefore much in favour of trying to teach the young about life because there are things they can, as they get to the right age, begin to understand. They all knew for instance how to put memory into a computer before they came to college but still had to do that on the college course to ‘pass.’ However they had little experience of life. Old buggers like me could tell them something useful, such as explaining how credit works. At that stage they resented maths and English, claiming they had done it all at school, but they were eager to know how not to be fleeced when they buy something on the never-never.

    I have long held that these kids shouldn’t go to college or university until they have had some experience of work. Moving from one class in school to another class, but at a college, at age 16 meant nothing to them. I had one student who got a job in a computer store (they all thought by the way on leaving they’d be earning at least 30k a year designing games but only working six hours a day. Ha!) and when I met him there I asked him what he learned at college. ‘Nothing’ he replied. I asked what he had learned going to work and his look changed. ‘Oh loads and loads!’ So I asked if he went back to college after working would he throw himself into it with more paissiom. ‘Oh hell, yes,’ he said.’ It’s so easy at college but you don’t know it then. It would be great to go back now and appreciate it.’

    So here I had my proof. Make them work on leaving school, which would give them some idea of life’s complexities, allow them to find out that turning up late every day is not how you do things and that people can be bastards, and then allow them to study at college if they so wish. But the emphasis has to be on study, not on playing on mobile phones. And colleges, here’s a clue: enforce your feckin rules or don’t have them.

  9. Watcher

    Old buggers like me could tell them something useful

    I agree – but there have been old buggers in every workplace I have entered too, and I learned much from them. I am one myself now.

    I went to Teacher Training College in the early 1970s. Most of my fellow students had come straight from school and would go straight back again afterwards. The college itself was as much like a school as it was like a university. I am not sure that this route really prepares teachers to pass on life lessons about the world of work to young people who will soon go there. I only lasted a year – the atmosphere was too stifling – and went out to get a proper job.

    Certainly, there should be educational opportunities for people who, having spent some time in the workplace, want to restart the formal learning process. That is not though, the only route that can be taken, and may not be the most efficient or effective for many. I’m afraid the idea of becoming an autodidact wasn’t even mentioned in my education, and I still hear of people going to university to ‘complete their education’. Education is never complete.

    Now I am in my 60s and work at a senior level in a startup in the mobile industry. I have to keep myself up-to-date as there are few rules yet in our industry and find my employees are much less used to finding things out for themselves than I am. They want to be instructed, not inspired. I fear years of school and university have only weakened their desire to learn & create – the opposite of what is required.

  10. I’ve always been in favour of selective education, but one thing I learned from​ teaching is the enormous negitive effect of a disruptive pupil, so that a greater “bang per buck” would be achieved by filtering out the uneducable, not the easily educated.

    Absolutely: removing the handful of troublemakers is what would make the world of difference.

  11. No. me neither.

    This is always what pisses me off with this continual ratchet of ever-increasing public spending. Any cuts are presented as if we’ll be going back to Victorian times instead of 2011, when everything seemed to be just fine.

    WTF, really WTF, have they found to spend twice as much money per head on?

    My guess would be themselves.

  12. Any cuts, where cuts are defined as a reduction in the rate of increase of spending…

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