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Blair breaks pledge on school spending

OECD figures reveal Labour's failure to increase cash for education since coming to power. Jon Slater reports

Labour broke its 1997 election promise to increase the share of the nation's income spent on education, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed this week.

Spending on primary and secondary schools remained well below the average of other developed countries four years after Tony Blair came to power, according to the international think tank.

The United States, Italy, Belgium and France all spent more per student on primary and secondary schools in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available.

During the last election, Labour denied charges that it had failed to increase the proportion of national income spent on education, a key manifesto pledge the party repeated for its second term.

But despite increasing spending by about pound;500 per pupil in England, OECD figures show the Government failed to raise UK spending above 5.5 per cent of GDP, the same as it was in 1995.

Spending on UK primary pupils was $4,415 (pound;2,470) a year, compared with an OECD average of $4,850 (pound;2,714).

Spending per secondary pupil in the UK was $5,933 (pound;3,321) a year, almost $600 (pound;336) below the average, and low spending translated into large class sizes, with an average of 20 pupils per teacher in UK primaries, three above the OECD average.

The pupil-teacher ratio in secondaries was 15, compared to an OECD average of 14.

Since 2001 spending has increased by a further pound;360 per pupil per year, government figures show.

The funding comparisons are contained in the latest edition of the OECD's Education at a Glance. It warns against assuming that pupils in low-spending countries lose out. "Lower expenditure cannot automatically be equated with a lower quality of education services," it says. "Australia, Finland, Ireland, Korea and the UK, for example, which have moderate expenditure on education per student at primary and lower secondary levels, are among the OECD countries with the highest performance by 15-year-old students."

A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said: "The unchanging proportion of GDP spent on education is due to the rapid increase in GDP.

"In 2001 GDP was more than pound;270 billion greater per annum than in 1995, reflecting the success of the Government's economic policies. We are disadvantaged in that the data are historic. Yet the UK position relative to the OECD mean had still improved."

The report praises the UK's "strong foundations" in early-years education, where its spending is the third highest in the OECD.

But drop-out rates at 16 are still high. Only three-quarters of young people aged 15 to 19 are in education, placing the UK 24th out of 27 countries, and behind Greece, Hungary and Slovakia.

In higher education the OECD found the increase in the proportion of young people gaining degrees has not decreased their worth. On average, British graduates earn 59 per cent more than non-graduates.

Andreas Schleicher, OECD head of education analysis, said: "If everyone is getting higher degrees, what does that mean? Will the value of those degrees decline?"

He said the research showed the answer was "no".

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