“We are the third highest spender on education in the OECD."
This seemingly innocuous phrase from schools minister Nick Gibb during an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme last week caused quite a stir.
Two unions questioned the veracity of his statement as they didn't feel that it represented the current situation in schools. Sean Coughlan, an education correspondent at the BBC, published an article on their website shortly after the interview questioning the OECD’s figure as it appeared to encompass all types of education spending, including independent school fees (paid by parents) and university tuition fees (paid by students).
The UK Statistics Authority has since commented that including expenditure unrelated to publicly funded schools may have presented “a more favourable picture”. So how much do we spend on education, and was Nick Gibb correct?
By way of context, the OECD is a Paris-based think-tank that collects data on economic and social issues from 36 member countries (mostly from the developed world). Each year, they publish a document called Education at a Glance – a somewhat ironic title given that the document is 462 pages long. The OECD say that their dataset “offers a rich, comparable and up-to-date array of indicators that reflect a consensus among professionals on how to measure the current state of education internationally”. Broadly speaking, their data cover the following areas: education outputs and outcomes (to what level have adults studied?); access to, and progression through, education (who participates in education?); the level of resources invested (what proportion of national wealth is spent on educational institutions?), and finally, the organisation of schools (what is the student-teacher ratio and how big are classes?).
Let us start, then, at the beginning. Are we the third highest spender on education in the OECD, as Nick Gibb claimed? Yes, we are. If you compare countries on the "total expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP" (GDP being a slightly crude measure of the size of an economy), the UK ranks third out of the 36 OECD countries. We spend the equivalent of 6.2 per cent of our GDP on education, bettered only by New Zealand (6.3 per cent) and Norway (6.4 per cent). However, it is true that this figure is made up of the total spent on education “from public, private and international sources”, which is why it includes independent school fees and student loans.
An obvious solution is therefore to strip out private expenditure and compare countries solely on government investment. If you look at public expenditure from primary schools through to tertiary (university-level) education as a percentage of GDP, the UK comes eleventh out of 36 with 4.3 per cent, essentially the OECD average.
Hold on a moment, though. Our university funding system of student loans (classed as "private spending") is very unusual relative to other countries as they typically fund universities through normal government spending and taxation. As a result, it seems unwise to compare the UK to other countries on this measure when, almost by definition, the UK will appear to be "spending" less at tertiary level.
To get around this classification problem, we can instead compare public expenditure in primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education (think all public expenditure on education apart from universities). Here, the UK comes joint sixth with the equivalent of 3.8 per cent of GDP spent on education below degree level. Another way to remove the influence of how universities are funded is to look at the cumulative education expenditure per student between the age of 6 and 15, which focuses on raw expenditure rather than calculating it as a percentage of GDP. On this measure, the UK ranks eighth – a touch lower but not dramatically different.
How much can we learn from these international comparisons? We should always be cautious about drawing too many conclusions from any individual data point, given that the methodology used in Education at a Glance can change literally from graph to graph. To illustrate the point, if you consider the total expenditure (public and private) at tertiary level, the UK spends about three times more per student than Chile, yet as a percentage of their economy Chile spends more than the UK – 2.5 per cent of their GDP (the second highest in the OECD) versus 1.9 per cent of our GDP. So, have we got it right, or has Chile got it right? That’s the sort of question which these comparisons cannot answer.
Furthermore, the figures do not tell us how well the money is being invested within each country irrespective of who or where it came from. The OECD data is, in truth, descriptive rather than explanatory and some of their figures have not been updated for a few years. In fairness to them, 462 pages is a lot to wade through already and the OECD publishes analyses of individual countries for those who want to dig into the detail on education expenditure or indeed any other information that the OECD collect.
I know it may come as a surprise to hear that, relative to other countries, we do spend a reasonable amount on our education system. Nick Gibb’s claim on Radio 4 was accurate and he was also correct that we spend more per pupil (at least from the ages of 6 to 15) than countries such as France, Germany and Japan. But I appreciate that this does not change what headteachers and teachers are dealing with in terms of trying to balance the books.
As someone who has just spent the last two years in the classroom, I am acutely aware of the funding pressures that schools and colleges are facing at present. The government’s spending review in 2019 is likely to determine the Department for Education’s budget for years to come, and I for one would be delighted to see more money invested so that everyone from primary school pupils up to university students receives a high-quality education.
Tom Richmond is a former adviser to ministers at the Department for Education and senior policy fellow at the Policy Exchange thinktank.