Education Spending – Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

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Last week I tweeted a video of an interchange between Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield and Prime Minister Theresa May near the end of Prime Minister’s Questions.  You can view the interchange here.

In it Mrs May parrots one of the oft parroted ‘statistics’ the government often quote when challenged about education spending about record levels of money going into the school system.  Here is a direct quote from the Department for Education…

“there is more money going into our schools than ever before – a record £43.5 billion by 2020… the IFS found that real terms per pupil funding in 2020 will be over 50 percent higher than it was in 2000.  It is true to say that the OECD has ranked the UK as the third highest for education funding.”

Let us examine these claims one by one, starting with the one the Prime Minister used in her exchange with Mr Blomfield.

CLAIM 1: There is more money going into our schools than ever before

Technically this is true.  There is a record amount of money going into schools than ever before.  However, compared with say 2000, I’m pretty certain you are earning more money now than you were then, provided you are in employment and in a similar career.  What this figure does NOT take into account is inflationary costs and the rise in pupil numbers.  A better measure for this statement would be to quote the per pupil funding in real terms which takes into account the change in prices (inflation) as well as changes in pupil numbers.  The IFS actually found that in real terms, per pupil spending is down 8% compared with 2009-2010.  In real terms therefore, whilst the physical amount going into schools is at a record level it has not been sufficient to cover increases in costs nor the rise in pupil numbers.

CLAIM 2: Real terms per pupil funding in 2020 will be over 50 percent higher than it was in 2000

Again, this is technically true but there are some hidden, possibly inconvenient, facts underlying this claim.  Let us consider the time period broken down by who was actually in government.  From 2000 to 2010 the Labour party were in charge.  From 2010 to 2015 there was a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in charge and from 2015 we have had a Conservative majority (minority from 2017 but still Conservative). Notice the deliberate time frame from 2000 even though the majority of this time education spending was governed by the party which now sits in opposition.  On average between 2000 and 2010 (Labour NOT Mrs May’s Conservative party in power) education spending per pupil in real terms increased by 5% per year.  This means that from 2000 to 2010 education spending per pupil, in real terms had actually increased by 63%.  The Coalition years, there was no change in spending in real terms – in other words, spending kept pace with inflation and changing student numbers.  On from 2015 has education spending actually reduced in real terms by 4% each year between 2015-16 and 2017-18.  Overall therefore, the government is correct in their claim, but what they don’t mention is that the increase came before the current government came to power and since then they’ve reduced spending in real terms.

CLAIM 3: The OECD has ranked the UK as the third highest for education funding

Again, technically true.  However what this figure includes is ALL spending in education including private school fees, student tuition fee loans (which of course have to be paid back) etc.  Hardly what can be considered real education funding.  When public spending only is taken into account then we slip to mid-table 14th on the OECD list (slightly below the OECD average actually).

Mark Twain once said that “there are lies, damned lies and statistics”.  I think we can see that Mrs May and her Conservative government are taking Mark Twain quite literally.

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Wayne Chadburn

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