11 November 2019

Why are English schools so expensive to run?

By Fiona Bulmer

There are clear political justifications for the Government’s recent announcement of extra school funding. A highly effective union campaign has made education funding a toxic issue and some schools are struggling to make ends meet. What is less is clear is why the cost of running English schools has increased so much over the past twenty years.

By international standards, the UK spends a lot on education, as a percentage of GDP spending is the fourth highest in the OECD and much higher than France and Germany. Total education spending has increased from £60 billion a year in 2000 to £90 billion today, even before the recent announcements, and funding per pupil is 60% higher.

The biggest pressure on budgets has come from the dramatic growth in the number of people working in schools. Since 2000, the English schools workforce has increased by 67%, an extra 380,000 people. The total is now just short of a million (947,300 full time equivalents), not that far behind the 1.2m working in the NHS.

It is hard to think of any other organisation that has seen such an enormous increase in staffing in 20 years, but there has been little scrutiny of whether this increase has brought about an improvement in educational standards, whether it provides value for money or if it is sustainable.

Granted, some of the increase reflects growth in pupil numbers, which are up by about 5% over the period. A further element reflects the teaching unions’ success in creating a narrower definition of what teachers should be required to do and, in particular, the agreement that teachers should have 10% of the school week out of the classroom for what is known as planning, preparation and assessment time. This clearly increases the number of staff required.

However, the majority of the expansion of the workforce is accounted for by extra teaching assistants and other support staff. Most classrooms  have at least two adults in them and often many more. Since 2000 the number of teaching assistants has more than tripled, from 80,000 to over 250,000 today – and yet it is a role that other education systems seem to be able to manage without.

Few schools rigorously assess the impact of the teaching assistants on pupil attainment and many of them lack even basic educational qualifications themselves. The most detailed academic research (the DISS project) showed that while assistants made teachers less stressed, the students they supported made slower progress than unsupported children of similar ability.

Even when the extra staff in schools are teachers rather than assistants, there is no guarantee that they will actually be teaching. It is likely that many of the additional recruits of the last 18 years are senior managers who spend very little of their time with pupils. Schools clearly need effective management and the more staff they have, the more HR management they need.

However, in contrast to the private sector, which has moved to flatter structures, schools have been busy creating ever more layers of senior leaders. A quick scan of the Times Educational Supplement jobs pages reveals countless adverts for deputy heads, assistant heads, team leaders, phase leaders, and coordinators. Sir David Carter, the former National Schools Commissioner, discovered a 1600-pupil school which had 45 people in its senior management team, and those numbers are not unusual.

There has also been a significant increase in other adults employed in schools to deal with troubled children, from learning mentors to pastoral support coordinators, to inclusion managers and play therapists. Additional staff have also become vital in supporting children with ever more severe disabilities and acute needs so they can manage in mainstream schools.

Some of these may be effective, but all too often they are recruited without any rigorous analysis of their role and the impact they may have. Then once they are in post head teachers are very reluctant to remove them.

Another reason schools are now employing so many people is because more of the burden of supporting children has moved away from parents to teachers. They are expected to deal with children’s mental health issues, to supervise what they eat and the exercise they take in an increasingly interventionist way, underpinned by an assumption that parents cannot or will not do this.

There are real questions about whether this is a healthy shift for the country as a whole or for children’s education. As Ofsted has said, “The more we expect schools to become a catch-all for all societal ills, the more we distract them from their core purpose.”

While these factors have created undoubted burdens on schools, the problem is that there is rarely any real scrutiny of the value of hiring extra staff to address them. The Department for Education’s analysis suggests schools could save £1.7 billion through using staff more efficiently, but there is little evidence that they are taking this seriously. Instead, schools are taking pointless but dramatic steps such as cutting the school day, which saves very little money as teachers are paid whether they are in class or not.

We also know that spending more money does not drive educational quality. Looking internationally, Singapore has the world’s best educational outcomes but is one of the lowest spenders, Poland and Denmark have similar test results but Demark spends 50% more.
The problem is that the teaching unions’ effective but misleading campaign about school funding cuts has masked the very real need for all schools to examine the value of each member of staff and for ministers to consider whether a high quality education system needs to employ almost 1 million people.

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Fiona Bulmer is chairman of governors at a London primary school.