Working out the relative value of expenditure in different countries is tricky. Similar sums in cash can have widely varying impacts, depending on their purchasing power. Yet the complexities of the exercise have not stopped economists trying, and we have celebrated indices based on universal items as varied as chocolate bars and hamburgers.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calculates the relative amount countries spend per pupil over their combined primary and secondary careers. The result is a figure in US dollars that is designed to take account of international variations in prices. This should iron out differences caused by higher costs - of textbooks, say - in some countries than in others. We have converted the OECD's figures into sterling but the amounts shown are relative, not absolute. Collecting this level of data takes time, so it is surprising that the figures are as recent as 2007.
Norway takes the top spot, spending the equivalent of #163;88,493 per pupil. Most Scandinavian countries are at the upper end, with the UK and Ireland, although Finland, often held up as a model of education, spends less than the other nations in the region and more in line with levels in Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.
According to this index, less developed and more agrarian economies appear to spend less on schooling than post-industrial nations. Whether this is because they have less to spend or salaries are lower is a moot point. Countries with either expensive welfare systems that require higher levels of personal taxation, or where students pay for their training to become teachers, are likely to find their salary bills higher than other countries. And since schooling is still a labour-intensive activity, salaries are still by far the largest part of spending on schooling. High salaries mean high spend, even if part of the cash paid to teachers is promptly returned to government through income tax.
As a result, any national deficit reduction strategies will affect teachers, most likely through larger classes and wage freezes. In countries where the notion of schools run "for profit" is gaining ground, this profit is also going to have to come from somewhere. If governments will not pay more, the options are either sweat the assets - getting more out of school buildings, for example - or make staff more productive. The alternative, as some schools know, is to make the customer pay - for sports kit, meals, laptops and who knows what else in future. Whether free schooling still exists is arguable, but the indications are that it may become even less free than it is now.
- John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education
Amount spent on individual pupils' education*
* Over combined primary and secondary studies (purchasing power equivalent in #163;, 2007)