Did the Coalition protect schools spending?

Based on a new report by Ruth Lupton and Stephanie Thomson The Coalition’s Record on Schools  (Social Policy in a Cold Climate, working paper 13)

Summary The Coalition did protect overall school spending as promised – it rose just 1% in real terms from 2009 to 2014 – but capital spending on buildings fell by 57%. However many schools and pupils saw no benefit. 

Labour had increased spending from the historic low point of 4.5% of GDP to 6.2% of GDP [1]. 48,000 more teachers (full-time equivalent) were employed in England (11.9%) and 133,000 more teaching assistants. Pupil-teacher ratios fell (23.1 to 21.1 in primary, 17.1 to 16.1 secondary). Class sizes also fell (28 to 26 primary, 22 to 21 secondary). Benefits included extra small group tuition, mentoring, before- and after-school clubs and family support. Much of this was targeted at poorer areas, including Building Schools for the Future and new buildings for academies.

Under the Coalition it was only the school sector that was protected: overall education spending including nursery, FE and HE fell by 4%. Current spending rose 7.5% on a per pupil basis, but not all schools gained. Class sizes reduced in secondary schools, but in primary schools they rose to the highest point since the turn of the century.

£8.3bn  (10% of the total revenue budget) was spent on the Academies Programme. Large amounts were paid as ‘transitional funding’ – supposedly a one-off but which was allowed to continue for several years, and did not actually relate to real running costs. Sponsored academies received money for “school improvement” or “diseconomies of scale”. [2] The DfE underestimated the number of possible conversions and the costs by £1 billion over two years. In addition, secondary academies received £90,000 more per year than local authority schools (Financial Times). [3] This was the price paid for the break-up of local authorities.

The Pupil Premium, supposedly additional money, led to schools in poorer areas gaining 4.3% while the least deprived schools lost 2.5%. All primary schools gained but especially the most deprived. This was not in fact additional funding but found by abolishing existing ‘area based grants’ (for extended schools, music, assessment for learning, National Strategies, Education Health partnerships, etc). Pupil Premium represents a very small proportion of overall school spending (2.9%).

There are serious questions about how this Pupil Premium money has been used. An Ofsted report in 2013 heavily criticised school-wide approaches, raising concerns that the money was not being targeted on the eligible pupils. Schools were given guidance on how to spend the pupil premium in the crude and misleading ‘league table’ format of the ‘Toolkit’ (Education Endowment Fund).

The maintenance of school budgets and modest redistribution towards the poorer areas provided cover for a radical change of governance: just 6% of secondary schools were academies in January 2010 but 57% by January 2014 (203 to 1893 schools). The growth was slower in primary, from 0 to 11%.

Coalition policy was clearly one of system change. The authors of the report raise the question whether this represents greater autonomy or alternatively a radical change “from a national system locally administered via democratically elected local education authorities, to a centrally controlled system with Secretary of State having legally binding contractual arrangements with an increasing number of private education providers. The speed and extent of what is in essence a form of privatisation – the transfer of responsibility from the public sector to actors outside it – has been remarkable”. [4]


[1] The final surge was, however, as much due to GDP falling as spending rising. This was not extravagance, since even the final level only brought the UK up to midway for OECD countries.

[2] The National Audit Office noted that academies opened in September 2010 recieved average transitional funding of over £2 million each by August 2012, and that over 90% of them continued to receive transitional funding the following year.

[3] This redistribution occurred because the DfE managed to overestimate the cost of the Local Authority services which academies no longer received.

[4] quoting West and Bailey 2013, p138

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