Funding shame that blights the lives of pupils and teachers

14th November 2008 at 00:00
Assembly government has played fast and loose with statistics in ways inappropriate in a democracy

Education funding - or lack of it - has sadly become one the biggest talking points for teachers in Wales. In 1999, heads' conferences either side of the border with England were crying out for more money. Since devolution this only happens in Wales; England has moved on.

In Wales, we talk of the funding fog, the postcode lottery and the achievement gap, but we never know how bad things are because we have been hoodwinked by the Assembly's PR machine. The official data are often hidden from view. Meanwhile, regular press releases show increases in expenditure.

We need to be clear about the facts. Interestingly, our financial problems were much less serious before the Assembly arrived. In the 10 years from 1990-01 to 2000-01, expenditure per pupil on education increased more in Wales than in England - 20.2 per cent compared with 16.7 per cent. But as the Assembly developed its strategy, it has increasingly disadvantaged education compared with other areas of the UK.

To explain this we can look at the UK's Treasury tables. Overall, public expenditure per head of population has been calculated for the four UK countries separately and together in all service areas over time. We must be careful to note this is the relative distribution of expenditure: the money itself would have been going up in every year in virtually every service area in every country of the UK.

The figures tell us that overall public expenditure in Wales has been reduced in comparison with the rest of the UK. The drop is dramatic for general economic affairs, most dramatic for economic development and serious for health and education, both of which dropped more relatively to that of the rest of the UK than did total Welsh expenditure.

What does all this mean? It means that an Assembly government apparently committed to a more classic "socialist" agenda has been increasing its expenditure on the core areas of economic development, health and education by less than the other countries of the UK, and less than its overall expenditure across all service areas. Between 2002-03 and 2007-08, recurrent and capital expenditure on education and training increased by 44 per cent in England and by only 33 per cent in Wales.

Where are the beneficiaries of the Assembly's decision making? General public services - the administration of the Welsh state - grows in its relative share, as does "recreation, culture and religion" - the Welsh equivalent being culture, media and sport. Both increases will not come as a surprise - government employment in Wales has shrunk less fast than in England. High-profile commitments to the arts and Welsh language have to be paid for.

It is ironic - and perhaps sad - that the concentration of resources on the Welsh state and cultural areas are exactly what those hostile to devolution would have predicted. Is this sensible for a country trying to move away from the lower reaches of the European league tables of GDP per head? The experience of societies that have done this - the Pacific Rim tiger economies and Eastern Europe - is that educational spending increased more rapidly than in other countries, and that health provision and economic development was prioritised. In Wales, we appear to be doing the exact opposite.

The consequences of restricting educational expenditure shows if we look at the spend per pupil over time. Comparisons have usually been made with England - we have the same pay and conditions, historically similar policies before devolution and a relatively similar socio-economic make-up. But it is clear that a considerable gap in per pupil spend has opened up. It totalled more than Pounds 400, or 8.9 per cent, in 2006-07. This gap amounts to several hundred thousand pounds per year for an average 950-pupil secondary school and scores of thousands of pounds for an average size primary school.

The seriousness of the gap is accentuated when you look at the effect it has on discretionary expenditure within schools. Given that the fixed costs of education - teachers' salaries, transport, specialist provision, etc - amount to more than 90 per cent of available expenditure, these costs come to about Pounds 5,000 per year in both Wales and England. Because of additional spending, English schools will have about Pounds 500,000 per year left to spend on books, equipment, staff training, etc; schools in Wales will have virtually nothing. The consequences of this for the quality of Welsh children's education and for staff morale are likely to be severe.

The problem is magnified by increasing amounts of money held back from schools by Welsh local authorities. In 2002-03, 81 per cent of the total budget was delegated to schools; 19 per cent was kept by local authorities for administration, home to school transport, school meals, school improvement and specialist provision such as additional needs. By 2007-08, only 76.1 per cent went directly to schools, meaning that local authorities were providing services independent of their schools' wishes and control. No other country in the world to my knowledge has been increasing its financial centralisation: most have been doing exactly the opposite. In 2004-05, England devolved 92 per cent of money to schools.

Devolving money is widely agreed to give more power to heads, improve their efficiency and boost morale. In Wales, the system makes for a continued passing of the parcel over who is responsible for standards - the local authority or the school. As Welsh heads meet colleagues from England, it can do little good for their morale to realise that the relative underfunding of our schools, combined with money held back by authorities, could amount to a half a million pounds in their budgets.

There are also issues relating to our levels of capital expenditure. We have older school buildings in Wales so our need is higher. In 2007-08 England spent Pounds 6.4 billion on capital investment in schools and Wales Pounds 224 million, approximately a 3 per cent share of England's investment with a 6 per cent share of population.

The consequences are that the educational experiences of Welsh children are likely to be declining in their relative quality. Under Pisa (programme for international student achievement) schools were asked about the adequacy and availability of resources for things such as IT, books and schemes of work. Welsh heads were more likely to report inadequate provision than the average. This is a surprising finding since a great many of the Pisa participating countries were very low-spending, developing societies such as Croatia and Azerbaijan. If they were stripped out, then material provision in Wales would probably be even more inadequate compared with other developed societies.

This is reflected in the hugely disappointing Pisa results. Wales scored below England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in three different subjects. It can also be seen in the higher proportion of Welsh pupils who leave school with no qualifications. We witness it also in the growing gap with England in the proportion of pupils gaining five or more good GCSE passes - in 2000-01, the gap was 0.2 per cent in favour of England; by 2006-07, it was 8 per cent.

The Assembly government has been quick to deny there is a funding issue. From the summer of 2007, it has systematically altered the mechanisms for routine publication of the data that show the scale of these problems. Reports that used to be presented to the relevant committee are put in an obscure part of the Assembly's website, hiding them from press scrutiny.

The Assembly also played fast and loose with the statistics in ways not appropriate to a democracy. In some documents, Welsh local authorities were compared to the atypically low-spending English local authorities on our border to try to minimise the difference. The English figures were then calculated taking out high-spending London to minimise the differences, with no attempt to take high-spending Ceredigion out of the Welsh figures. When this didn't eradicate the difference, the figures of spending per head of population were added to the figures of spending per child to try and camouflage the gap. It was also claimed that there have been changes in the ways that English and Welsh figures have been calculated, although the figures are still on a like for like basis and are fully comparable.

It is difficult to avoid a sense of shame looking at these figures, because they mean that young lives are being blighted and young potential unrealised. It also means that we will be increasingly unable to compete with the other parts of the UK - and globally.

Increasing spending on education at the expense of other service areas will be even more difficult in times of severe reduction in overall public expenditure growth. But something must be done. The first step could be for all political parties in Wales to commit themselves to matching the per pupil expenditure of England. This would require, of course, considerable pain for those service areas that have profited under the Assembly regime, at the expense of the young people of Wales.

But it is precisely by admitting the truth, acknowledging mistakes and by replanning and rethinking that politicians show they deserve our respect and our votes. How can we give further law-making powers to those who have used their present powers to apparently cheat teachers and children?


Difference in the amount spent per pupil in England compared with Wales

19992000: +1.3%

200001; +1.3%

200102: +0.8%

200203: +4.9%

200304: +4.4%

200405: +5.8%

200506: +8.1%

200607: +8.9%

200708 *: +8.7%

200708 **: +10% (approx)

* Estimated by Assembly govt

** Estimated by Prof Reynolds


How spending per head in Wales compares with the whole of the UK 200203 to 200708

General public services: +8.3%

Recreation, culture, religion: +7.2%

Overall expenditure: -3.3%

Health: -3.7%

Education: -6.4%

Economic affairs (general): -15.2%

Economic development: -17.4%

David Reynolds Professor of education, Plymouth University.

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