Undoubtedly, these are admirable aims. Yet they are at risk unless the school system can raise overall pupil achievement at a lower cost to the taxpayer. New research published by Reform argues that improving value for money is the greatest challenge for the education sector.
Successive governments have struggled to improve value for money in schools. They have allowed spending to rise when pupil numbers have been in decline; between 1997 and 2013, spending on education rose by 166 per cent, while the number of pupils fell by one per cent.
These coincident spending rises and falling demand have led to a productivity problem. When productivity is low, more activity is needed in the education sector to provide the same standard of education to the same number of people.
According to the Office for National Statistics, UK education productivity was in decline for seven of the nine years between 2000 and 2009, but since then has been steadily improving.
These estimates use “uncapped” GCSE performance as a measure of education quality, which is likely to be subject to grade inflation. Reform has produced an alternative productivity estimate, using instead the UK’s performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and England’s performance in Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
The results paint a contrasting picture of productivity in the UK education system. Using PISA rather than GCSE results to adjust education quality shows that productivity fell by three index points between 2006 and 2012, rather than rising by 15 index points.
England’s performance in TIMSS shows a reduction of 30 index points between 1999 and 2011, rather than a rise of three index points using GCSE results. While not a definitive calculation of UK education productivity, this alternative assessment suggests the schools sector could be, on the most pessimistic of interpretations, providing much worse value for money than it did 10 years ago.
To address this education productivity challenge, the report suggests three areas of reform.
Firstly, the new Government must encourage schools to use their autonomy to innovate and, thereby, raise pupils’ attainment. While the coalition Government drove a large expansion of autonomy to more schools, many schools do not use their freedoms to innovate. The report recommends extending academy freedoms to all schools and removing the barriers to schools joining school groups to encourage innovation.
The second focus for the Government should be to maintain the important gains in school accountability over the last Parliament. The coalition Government removed many of the perverse incentives for schools to focus their resources on pupils at key grade boundaries. It also removed the automatic equivalence of qualifications with varying difficulty and worth in the labour market. Both these policies have rightly encouraged teachers to focus on raising achievement for all, particularly for disadvantaged pupils.
Lastly, the Government should introduce a school funding formula that is fair and consistent across schools with similar pupil intakes. The current system for school funding for pupils aged five to 16 years is arbitrary and unfair. Previous research by Reform has found that the amount of per pupil funding ranges from between £2,000 and £8,000, taking into account both the school and pupils’ background characteristics. While additional funding through the Pupil Premium has reallocated more funding to schools in more deprived areas, this has not achieved a consistent or fair funding system on a pupil level.
Together, these ideas for reform could help the school system achieve more for less within a cash flat schools budget. This will benefit all public service users by maximising the impact of school education and freeing up funds for other sectors, such as college and further education. Moreover, it will give schools the tools necessary to rise to the productivity challenge.
Amy Finch is a researcher at the policy think-tank Reform which is this week publishing recommendations for the 2015 Spending Review. Further details can be found at www.reform.uk