The true cost of education

From Leader Magazine Spring Term 2 2019 issue

ASCL Funding Specialist Julia Harnden highlights her analysis on what education in the 21st century should look like and how much it will cost.

It would be difficult to find anyone in the education sector, or even the broader education community, that isn’t aware of the turmoil and insecurity that exists across the funding landscape in 2019. The view both near and far is one of cash-strapped institutions whose financial planning is veiled with uncertainty about the future. And the future in this case is only April 2020.

Sometime soon, Her Majesty’s Treasury will launch its spending review consultation. The spending review will determine DfE funding from April 2020. Such is the level of uncertainty surrounding Brexit, and the amount of government time that it is taking up, we don’t know what period the spending review is likely to cover. The general feeling is that it won’t be a five-year review and many think that it could be for less than three.

But now really is the time to keep our heads when all around are losing theirs. In spring last year, the Education Select Committee launched an inquiry into school and college funding. This has presented us with a great opportunity.

It is incredibly easy to fall into the trap of peddling the same old message – “We need more money.’’ This is, of course, true but it’s also easy for the government to respond with comments that we are weary of hearing:

“There is more money in education than ever before.”

“Standards aren’t falling.”

“Spending in cash terms has increased by 50% since 2000.”

At the select committee evidence hearing we were asked, “What would a ten-year plan for education cost?” To have responded with, “We need more than we are getting now,” would not have passed muster and nor should it! We need to be able to say, “We need this much and here’s why...”

So, we are starting a new conversation about what education in the 21st century should look like and how much that will cost.

The sensible way to start answering such a big question is to chunk it up. We know that there are crippling funding problems across all phases of education. We know these issues impact on the general pupil population and children and young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND).

For the first phase of this piece of work, we focused on the schools block of the dedicated schools grant (DSG). The schools block funds the basic revenue budget for schools with pupils aged 5–16. The schools block is one of four that make up the total dedicated schools grant, but it is the largest and represents around 77% of the total.

Sufficiency and distribution are different

To be clear, and this is important, this work concentrates on the amount that the English system needs, to deliver on reasonable expectations of the schools block of funding. How sufficient funding is distributed is a different beast and is the job of the national funding formula.

Where the two align is that they must both serve the same ambition to support equity of opportunity and an education system that gives every child and young person access to what they need to succeed.

So, what do we need and why?

Thinking about this at national level, we set about asking some straightforward questions in the context of the 21st century:

What do we expect of a basic school in 2019?

A basic school will deliver a core curriculum in a safe building. There will be a teacher in front of every class and necessary resources and support staff will be available to meet pastoral and safeguarding expectations. A basic school will provide the first £6,000 of support for children and young people with additional needs. This is the function of the school’s basic revenue budget.

What are our children and young people entitled to in terms of the amount of time they spend with a qualified teacher?

If parents were asked about their expectations on this question, I think the answer would be quite easy to predict – 100%. ASCL would agree with this. To make this happen we need to consider:

  • How much time should we be asking our teachers to teach? Workload and work–life balance are often talked about, so surely this should be part of the process of determining the true cost of education? An input to the solution rather than an output of the system?
  • How much of the budget do we expect to spend on teachers and therefore how much do we spend on everything else? We need to reflect a picture of a modern education system with our eyes wide open: accountability reforms, compliance and financial regulatory requirements. As local public services are in decline, schools are becoming providers of a range of services that they have not traditionally been funded to deliver.

What language should we use to gain traction with government and, simultaneously, demonstrate the reasonableness of our demands?

The DfE is strengthening its emphasis on the value of linking financial and curriculum planning. The metrics being used include, amongst others, the pupil-to-teacher ratio, the proportion of revenue available to spend on teachers, the cost of employing a teacher and the average amount of time that teachers teach. ASCL supports this approach and has advocated it for many years. We agree that this approach is a key driver in the effective management of resources.

So, it makes good sense that we should consider the national picture in the same way, doesn’t it? Let’s look at national statistics to estimate a pupil-to-teacher ratio and work out what that costs to put in place? We have also used national statistics to frame a set of assumptions about the other metrics mentioned above. It is quite possible, using simple maths, to work out what the revenue per pupil across different key stages needs to be, to deliver the pupil-to-teacher ratio that we think reflects what the children and young people in education right now deserve and are entitled to.

What do we need?

In our report, The True Cost of Education (, we explore entitlement, and the assumptions that we need to make to work out what the revenue per pupil value looks like. What we found was that the 2019/20 schools block is going to be £5.7 billion short of what we need. We need the 2019/20 schools block to be £40.2 billion and figures from the government tell us that it will be £34.5 billion.

So, what would a ten-year plan for education cost?

About £414 billion for the schools block alone is the simple answer!

What next?

We must continue our chunking up of the big question. Look at other funding streams both within and outside of the dedicated schools grant; high needs, 16–19 will be top of the list. We must also continue to delve deeper into what entitlement looks like in the 21st century and what society expects from our schools.

Julia Harnden
ASCL Funding Specialist