DESPITE the evidence of year-on-year rises in GCSE results in the past 10 years, there has been continuing concern about academic standards. There appears to be a consensus that pupils - and schools - could do better.
This somewhat bleak impression of UK education is reinforced by some international comparisons of academic performance, particularly in maths. These suggest that British children, at least at the lower end of the ability distribution, do worse than their peers in many other European and Asian countries.
The need for further improvements is a serious policy issue, since we know that education is not only of huge social importance but also plays a crucial economic role. Most commentators agree that to remain globally competitive we do need a highly-skilled workforce.
From an individual's perspective, education is certainly of great economic importance. There is now overwhelming evidence that there are significant financial gains from education. Workers with more education earn more, are less likely to suffer from unemployment, tend to get jobs that give them greater satisfaction and have better opportunities for further training.
Some research even indicates that investing in human capital may generate a higher financial return than equivalent investments in physical capital. We also know that education has enormous positive social benefits, such as promoting technical progress, producing better health and reducing crime rates.
There now seems to be virtually universal agreement that the way to raise standards is simply to spend more. The most favoured solution is to increase expenditure per pupil, in order to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. Yet the empirical evidence does not necessarily justify this. The assumption that spending more on education andor reducing class sizes will automatically raise standards is false. Yes, we might need to spend more on education to raise standards, but we need to also consider how the extra should be spent.
As we have seen, this Government has committed itself to an across-the-board reduction in class sizes at the primary school level, at considerable financial cost. The intuition behind this policy certainly seems compelling; better resourcing and smaller classes should make schools more effective. Yet the research evidence on this issue is very mixed. For example, a number of important studies have suggested that the quality of teachers and teaching have far more influence on pupil achievement than measures such as spending per pupil.
What this means is that, simply increasing funding levels may not lead to higher standards. UK research seems to support this view. Evidence obtained from using cohort studies, which follow children from birth until adulthood, also suggests that children who experience smaller classes and higher per pupil expenditure do only marginally better in terms of academic attainment, and no better in the labour market, than those who are in larger classes or who have experienced lower levels of expenditure.
Clearly all this research evidence does not mean that resourcing levels do not matter at all, rather it implies that how resources are used is as important as the overall level of funding. The key questions, as will be spelt out by top American researchers at an important TES-sponsored debate next week (see below), are of course: why does increased expenditure not necessarily raise standards, and what can we do instead to improve our schools?
As Eric Hanushek, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Rochester, will argue the current organisation and incentives of state schools do not ensure high quality or efficiency. Although the incentives in UK schools are changing, in the past, school managers may not necessarily have had the incentive to raise standards and to use resources effectively.
What this means, as virtually every teacher could tell you, is that how well the school is managed is as important, again within limits, as the overall level of resourcing. This does not mean that we can increase class sizes ad infinitum and not expect to see a deterioration in standards. Rather it suggests that at current levels of resourcing, small increases in funding will not have a significant impact on performance, unless we also focus on the way schools use existing resources.
Anna Vignoles is a research fellow at the Centre for the Economics of Education
Schools: Does More Mean Less? a TES-sponsored debate at the New Lecture Theatre, London School of Economics, at 5pm on Monday, e-mail ticket requests to firstname.lastname@example.org