According to the timetable, it should have been cut by a quarter by 2004; on present performance, that target won't be reached until 2020. So can we believe Chancellor Gordon Brown's pledge, first made last March, eventually to bring state-school spending up to private-sector levels?
Wisely, he did not set a timetable. But it was assumed that he meant current (day-to-day) spending, and that parents and teachers could look forward to much smaller classes and many more books: "Our long-term aim should be to ensure for 100 per cent of our children the educational support now available to just 10 per cent," he said.
After his pre-Budget report last week, it is hard to see how he can progress towards that goal. Spending per pupil in the state sector needs to rise by 45 per cent to match the fee-charging schools' pound;8,000 per pupil average. The extra pound;130 million announced last week, to be spent by heads, works out at pound;20 per pupil; combined with money announced in March, the overall gap will close by barely pound;200.
Moreover, the average pupil-teacher ratio in the private sector is 9.87 (11.38 if you double count each sixth-former), while state secondaries have one teacher to 16 pupils. Add the tightness of the next spending round from 2008 to 2011, in which education is unlikely to get real annual increases of more than 4 per cent, and you can see how far Mr Brown is from his target.
Capital spending, on buildings and equipment, is a different matter. Here, Mr Brown's aim to match the private sector is more achievable. Annual capital investment in private schools is pound;1,000 per pupil. The pre-Budget report shows the state's capital spending on education will reach pound;10.2bn in 2010-11. This includes colleges and universities but should leave state schools close to the private schools' pound;1,000 per pupil. It was only in this context that Mr Brown repeated his March pledge in last week's speech.
Matching capital spending will be an admirable achievement, but it will not enable state schools to "catch up" with fee-charging schools in any tangible sense. Private schools have superior capital stock. They have had years of investment, in contrast to the almost total neglect of state schools in the 1980s and early 1990s. And they won't suddenly stop spending. In March, Mr Brown said average investment per state pupil would rise, adjusting for inflation, "to today's private school level", not to whatever it is in future.
The difference between current and capital spending is not widely understood by the public, and I suspect Mr Brown has deliberately fudged it. His pledge last March took the breath away, as many new Labour promises have done, but the lesson for us all is to watch carefully both the small print and the delivery.