However, the UK's low position could be misleading as European countries calculate their education expenditure in different ways. Britain, for example, is one of the countries that do not include the cost of research and development in their higher education spending figure. It also excludes student grants from the calculations.
Next up from the UK in the league of 10 countries for which figures are available comes pre-unification Western Germany at 4.9 per cent. The Netherlands ranking eighth with 5 per cent is distinguished by being the only country that spends a greater proportion of its GDP on the private rather than the public sector (3.3 per cent and 1.7 per cent respectively), the report says.
At the top end of the scale are Finland with 7.9 per cent, Sweden with 6.8 per cent and Denmark with 6.7 per cent.
"It is difficult, however, to draw a fair comparison between countries on the basis of their expenditure in the fields of pre-school and higher education, " says the report. In Scandinavia, pre-school education often includes extended day and evening care for young children.
The UK does rather better when pre-school and higher education are excluded from the picture, coming fourth in a comparison of EU spending on primary and secondary schooling.
Again, Finland (4.9 per cent), Sweden (4.6 per cent) and Denmark (4.1 per cent) top the league. But the UK and Portugal are close behind with 4 per cent apiece, ahead of France (3.9 per cent) and Ireland (3.7 per cent). Bottom comes the Netherlands at 3 per cent, of which just 0.8 per cent goes into its state schools.
When expenditure per pupil is examined the UK, however, slumps back to eighth in secondary schools (27.8 per cent of per capita GDP) and fifth (19.7 per cent) for primary schools. In all 12 countries for which statistics are available, expenditure per pupil is markedly higher at secondary level than in primary schools and is especially evident in Belgium, Germany, France and Austria.
"Several factors may account for the differences between countries in expenditure per pupil," says the report, Key Data on Education in the European Union. "But the pupil:teacher ratio and teachers' salaries are among the most important ones, since staff costs account for the bulk of education expenditure in all member states."
This is borne out by a further comparison of how education budgets are spent, with Portugal allocating 86 per cent for salaries at one end of the scale and Austria at the other with 61.2 per cent.
Figures for the UK (ninth out of 12) show that 71.6 per cent is spent on salaries and 5.1 per cent on capital expenditure.