Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Funding Gaps

Reaction to the publication of last week’s figures comparing educational spending between England and Wales was pretty predictable, with people seizing on the headline figures – Wales average £5595, England average £6200 – to make political capital.  There was more heat than light though, I felt.
Looking at the stats in more detail, I’m not sure that the real message is quite as simple as the headlines suggested.  In the comparison between Wales and the English regions, the one thing that leapt out to my eye was the huge disparity in spending between Inner London and any other area.  In Inner London, the spend per pupil is a whopping £9156, almost 50% greater than the England average.
That prompted me to look at different ‘types’ of authority in England, and there is a consistent pattern that metropolitan areas – the big cities – have a significantly higher spend per pupil than do the more rural areas.  So, are we comparing like with like?  The category of authority in England which is most similar to Wales is probably the shire counties (average spend £5789) or perhaps the unitary authorities (£6080) rather than the overall England average, and a comparison with those would reduce the funding gap to somewhere between £200 and £500, rather than the £604 quoted.
It’s also worth noting that the use of averages can sometimes hide rather than highlight useful data.  Not all schools in Wales would be better off if they were in England, which is the message some seemed to be giving last week.  Ceredigion’s average spend is above the England average, for instance – and in the same way, I’d bet that there will be some authorities in England which are below the Welsh average, although the data isn’t detailed enough to confirm that.
A gap is still a gap, though; and there’s no question that overall Wales is spending less per head than England.  Nor is there any question that the gap has grown compared to last year.  There are, though, two things where hard fact is not so easily ascertainable.
The first is the reason for the gap, and its growth.  The statistical report itself suggests some reasons, amongst which is that pupil numbers are falling faster in England than in Wales.  Another factor is likely to be the more extensive use of PFI in England, which will manifest itself as a higher relative revenue spend without necessarily having any more to show for it.  But there isn't enough data in the published stats to assess such effects, and it would be interesting to see a bit more research done into the underlying causes rather than responding with political sloganising.
The second is the effect of the gap on outcomes.  Does the gap contribute to the underperformance of Welsh pupils compared to English pupils?  Certainly, there is a problem with educational attainment in Wales, but jumping to conclusions about the cause (and therefore the solution) is not always the most helpful response.
The rhetoric says that there has to be a connection between funding and results, but that seems to be based more on a correlation between two sets of numbers than on any hard proof of a causal relationship.  It is too easy by far to blame lack of funds for educational failings, but throwing money at a problem doesn’t always solve it.  Again, more research would be helpful in understanding whether, and to what extent, the lower level of funding actually contributes to the lower performance levels.
As things stand, I honestly don’t know whether I should be praising the Welsh Government and local authorities for achieving value for money, or criticising them for depriving our children of opportunities by adopting a cheese-paring approach.  ‘Spend per head’ is not, in itself, a valid basis for judging performance.  And simply joining in the knee-jerk ‘my side good, your side bad’ response which we saw last week isn’t good enough either.

6 comments:

Jeff Jones said...

Probably the best results in Wales are in the Vale which has the lowest spend per head of all the 22 local authorities. The issue that interests me is where has the £430 per pupil premium for those on free school meals in England gone. It must have been in the settlement because of the Barnett consequential. The real question,however, is has it been passed on to schools in Wales or has it somehow been lost inthe funding fog? WAG keeps arguing that all LEAs in Wales have agreed to pass on the extra 1% in school funding but if you talk privately to many councillors they will tell you that school budgets can't be protected and are going to be cut. The figure quoted to me for Bridgend was a 2% cut in primary and 4% cut in secondary. This is a story which has still got leags and will again probably hit the headlines once schools receive their budgets from local authorities in March

John Dixon said...

Jeff,

"Probably the best results in Wales are in the Vale which has the lowest spend per head of all the 22 local authorities."

... which sort of confirms that whatever the relationship between spending per head and outcomes is, it's not a simple linear relationship.

"The issue that interests me is where has the £430 per pupil premium for those on free school meals in England gone. It must have been in the settlement because of the Barnett consequential."

I may be wrong on this, but I thought that it had been achieved by a reallocation of funds within the English Education budget. So no Barnett extra as a consequence.

Glyndo said...

The figures show Blaenau Gwent as the second highest spender and the second lowest achiever. Conversely, The Vale of Glamorgan is the lowest spender but is right up there with the highest achievers. So, money is obviously not the major driver, I leave you to ponder on what that major driver might be.

John Dixon said...

Glyndo,

Your comments on Blaenau Gwent perhaps draw attention to another issue - size of authority. In smaller authorities, such as BG, the 'overheads' will be divided by a smaller number of pupils, and therefore give the impression of a higher spend per pupil, even if it doesn't look that way to the individual schools.

It just highlights, once again, that 'funding per head' is potentially a red herring. The question we need to address isn't simply 'how much do we want to spend?', but 'what do we want to achieve?' - and then 'how much is that going to cost us?'.

If we can achieve the right results on a lower level of spend (that's good, rather than bad, isn't it?), then increasing spend per head to 'English' levels, based on the use of a crude average, would be to base policy on the wrong criteria.

Siônnyn said...

I believe that the cost of servicing the PFI contracts in England relating to schools is about 3.5 billion. I am unable to find a good source for this, (although I did read it somewhere respectable) but as the total cost of PFI is about 10 billion,, it seems plausible.

There are 8.1 children of school age in England, so the cost due to PFI per pupil would appear to be about £430.

John Dixon said...

Siônnyn,

Thanks for that. We need to be careful about interpretation, though, since not all of the cost of servicing PFI deals is 'extra'. If PFI had not been used, there would still be some revenue costs related to the capital spend - they'd just be at a lower level. It's likely, though, on the basis of your figures, that PFI is at the least a significant element of the apparent 'gap'.