Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Averages and actuals

The Lib Dems seem determined not to let go of their obsession with the ‘funding gap’ in education, which shows that the total spent on average per pupil in Wales is £604 less than the total spent per pupil on average in England.  It’s as unclear as it ever was how important that gap is, or how much difference putting extra cash into education to close that ‘gap’ would actually make, but that seems to be mere detail to the Lib Dems.
Their simplistic slogan, that for them to support any budget, the budget must show progress towards closing the gap, raises more questions than it answers.  For starters, why – on the basis of what evidence, exactly – is the English average the ‘right’ amount to spend per head?  Where does the idea come from that because England spends £6,200 per head then that is the ‘right’ amount to spend?
And then, how do they want to close the gap, precisely?  The implication which most people will read into their statements (and I’m sure the one that they will want people to read into them) is that they will simply fund each and every pupil by an extra £604 per year.
Job done?  Well, not exactly, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, by any analysis of the figures, London is a special case.  The spend per head in London is very much greater than it is in any other region, more than 50% higher than the ‘rest of England’ average.  It’s more realistic to disregard the London figure, and look solely at the difference between Wales and the ‘rest of England’.  That difference is £412, not the £604 figure oft-quoted by the Lib Dems (or, as they seem to prefer for maximal propaganda effect, ‘more than £600’).  So perhaps we need only increase all education budgets by £412, rather than £604.
Again, not exactly.  The reliance on a high level comparison of averages might be a useful political tool, but it is of much more limited use in actually understanding the numbers.  Averages can sometimes conceal more than they reveal – and in this case, they neatly conceal the fact that the difference between authorities within Wales is significantly greater than the difference between the English and Welsh averages.
Four of Wales’ education authorities already spend more than the ‘rest of England’ average (and two of those already spend more than the English average including London).  If the English average is the ‘right’ amount to spend, why should not these authorities be penalised for spending too much?
And, leading on from that, if there is a fundamental problem – so severe as to make the Welsh Government’s budget unsupportable without action to address it – in the fact that the Welsh average is £412 (or £604; the argument is the same) behind the English average, what about the situation within Wales? 
The difference between the highest spending authority (Ceredigion, at £6,340) and the lowest spending authority (Vale of Glamorgan, at £5,001) is £1,339.  That’s more than twice the size of the headline difference between England and Wales, and more than three times the size of the more meaningful comparison between Wales and the ‘rest of England’.
That internal gap is something which is entirely within the control of the Welsh Government to address; the fact that no-one seems particularly worried about its existence underlines how misleading simple mathematical comparisons can be, unless complemented by an attempt to understand why differences exist and how important they are. 
A simplistic concentration on spend per head is little more than a band-wagon riding diversion from examining the real problems which we have in our education system in Wales, which are far more complex than a simple debate about funding.  It’s playing to the gallery rather than showing any understanding of those problems, or any willingness to get to grips with them.


Lionel said...

"Where does the idea come from that because England spends £6,200 per head then that is the ‘right’ amount to spend?"

probably because they, like the Welsh Government and the BBC are obsessed with comparing Wales to England on all that they talk about, as if Engurland is the world bench mark for everything

Glyndo said...

Nail and head spring to mind.

Anonymous said...

From what was reported on the BBC, the much admired Finnish education system spends even less/per pupil than Wales.

Siônnyn said...

Kirsty was full of sound and fury today - and signified exactly nothing! What would she do with the extra money? Where would she cut in order to obtain it? How would she distribute it? I think we should be told!

John Dixon said...


Good questions, but I wouldn't expect them to answer them any time soon.

Anonymous said...

It always comes down to comparing like with like. Spending per pupil is £4,220 in Shropshire yet £5,625 in Powys. Am I to assume that the leader of the LibDems, Kirsty Williams AM, is arguing for a £1,405 spending cut per pupil in her constituency?

Anonymous said...

John's scrutiny of this issue has been essential in showing it up to be a red herring.