Jonathan Simons is a Partner at Public First and its Head of Education Practice.
Spending on schools has never been higher. Why does no one feel it, and should government reduce it?
In the Autumn Statement, Jeremy Hunt promised an extra £2 billion for schools in 2023-24, and a further £2 billion in 2024-25. That is on top of the increases already pencilled in – meaning that by September 2024, schools spending will be £5 billion a year higher than it was in September 2022.
Just one of those annual increases is bigger than Labour’s promise to revolutionise school funding through taxing private schools, and redistributing up to £1.7 billion a year to the state sector. (Spoiler alert: it wouldn’t raise that much).
Two thoughts occur at this point – potentially contradictory. The first is: if schools are receiving more cash than ever before, why does no one feel it? The second is: shouldn’t we be thinking of ways of reducing this ever growing budget (especially if, as per the previous point, no one feels the benefits anyway)?
Taking the first one first, it could be the simple economic concept of diminishing marginal returns for every extra pound. It could be the be the phenomenon of “Covid inflation” – when the government spent £620 million every day on Covid protection in 2021, £2 billion or £5 billion a year sounds like loose change. It could be a general anti-Government mood. It could be part of a strategy by some in the education sector to downplay it in a push for higher wages and even higher spending.
But my sense is that overall, it’s likely to be two, simpler things. The first is hopefully temporary – high inflation has hit schools like anyone else. The second is that demand for what schools now need to do has risen faster than spending. The Conservative government will soon be spending more in real terms in schools than the Labour government did in 2010 – but the calls on that money are a lot more expensive. So spending can both be high, and felt by many to be insufficient.
So to the second argument. If no one feels this spending – and, some on this site would argue, the Conservatives are never going to win a compassion game with Labour on schools – why try to compete? Why not reduce demand on government by reducing school spending?
A young person who achieves good GCSEs, holds for life what academics would call “protective factors”. They are likely to live for longer, and do so healthily. They are less likely to commit crime. They are more civically and democratically engaged. They will earn more (and pay more tax). They will be happier.
It’s because we know these things – as well as, of course, the inherent moral value of knowledge – that we have collectively decided as a country for almost a century to mandate the state to invest in education on all of our behalf. Education truly is an investment – and one that consistently pays back.
But the quid pro quo is that we, as citizens, should have the highest of demands over what it delivers. We should demand consistency over outcomes, and the use of that money on the things for which we have the highest confidence that they will work.
However, equally, we should be comfortable with what sounds like high spending in some areas, if it delivers savings further down the line. The opposite of catching people early isn’t that we save money by scrapping what sounds like nannying state overreach. It’s that we inevitably are forced to catch them later, at much higher cost – in expensive adult learning, or in lower tax receipts, or in vulnerable children’s outcomes, or in the criminal justice system.
This isn’t a case for a smaller state, or a bigger state. It’s a case for a strategic state.
The Government has made tremendous steps in education since 2010. Reflecting the fact that much of education should be non-partisan, it has also been unafraid to continue the best of what the previous Labour government did. This is bearing fruit – whether it’s in things like this month’s PIRLS results showing that the UK is fourth in the world for young people’s reading, or focus groups that show schools regularly cited as the exception to a keenly felt sense of decline in the public realm.
But in exchange for what will be a spend of £58.8 billion in September 2024, what should a Conservative government expect from schools? The good news is we know a lot about what this could be. And other contributors this week will talk more about this. But in general, we can think of it in three areas:
Firstly, pushing consistency over the policies which we know work for all children everywhere. The PIRLS result is a direct vindication of Nick Gibb’s unashamed desire to identify what works and drive it into schools – inch by inch, week by week, school by school.
Do we know what this looks like for maths – increasingly important in the modern world? If so, we should be unafraid about saying so. More generally, we know that curricula which are heavy on content and knowledge, and led by expert teachers, deliver better results. We know that some schools have amazing systems for tackling pupil misbehaviour, and some don’t do this. We know that some schools manage workload for their teachers much better than others. We must be more angry about inconsistency.
Secondly, maximising value for money and addressing inefficiency. This isn’t code for paying teachers less. In fact, one of the smartest investments the state can do is pay teachers more. But the data is crystal clear. There is significant variance between how much schools spend on staff, and on back offices.
There are huge discrepancies between schools in similar areas who deliver different outcomes with the same money. Our most successful groups of schools – known as Multi Academy Trusts – are delivering better outcomes for pupils, greater support for teachers, reduced workload, and all for less money. We need a focus on more schools in these groups.
Third, being clear on what schools should do and not do. One of Michael Gove’s signature moves in 2010 was to change the name of the Whitehall department back to “Education”. That is, after all, what schools do. But at the same time, since 2010 the wider services which some children depend on have withered away. The net result is not that parents and families have somehow learned how to address these, nor that the problems have vanished. It’s that schools have increasingly picked up the slack.
This is both a waste of money (using expensive teachers to address these issues) and inefficient (because schools, as non-specialists, won’t address them as cost effectively). It’s not statist to say that a pound invested in wider support outside of schools is a pound well spent – if it frees up a valuable school pound, and stops a pound (or more likely, tens or hundreds of pounds) being spent later.
When it costs £270,000 a year to host a child in a secure detention facility, and up to £1 million a year to place them in a children’s home to pay for private equity profits, we are not reducing the demand for government. When we have adults with low or non-existent basic skills much less likely to be in fulfilling work, and more likely to be in the welfare system, we are not reducing demand. When we have children with special needs that we could help with a small amount of targeted support, and instead we ignore that so that local government pays a huge premium for more specialist help, we are not reducing demand. We are doing an accounting trick – and closing our eyes when the bill comes due.
So that’s my plan. A strategic state. Reducing demand for government by being clear what the state does, what it doesn’t do, and doing what it does properly. Reducing demand for government overall in the proper way, by delivering greater value for money and outcomes, and avoiding poor quality spending elsewhere.
There is nothing more conservative than inducting the next generation into this country’s shared ancestry and setting them up for their shared future. There is nothing less conservative than making ill-judged savings because of an unevidenced desire that the needs of children will just go away.