12th September 2017

Peter Sellen: ‘Our education spending may be above average, but for teachers it doesn’t feel like a land of plenty’

The chief economist of the Education Policy Institute looks beyond the stats in the OECD’s Education at a Glance report

Today the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development published the Education at a Glance 2017 report – the most comprehensive collection of international education system statistics available, covering topics from early years education to adult learning rates.

Two subtle messages can be taken from the wealth of material.

First, many of the issues we are concerned about in this country cannot be blamed on the current or past governments alone – instead, they represent deep-rooted challenges across the modern world. For instance, in the UK women represent just 25 per cent of entrants to tertiary education in the engineering, manufacturing and construction fields, but 77 per cent of those taking health and welfare-related courses. Across the OECD, the average proportions are 24 and 76 per cent respectively. That means that, on this and other similar challenges, it will be innovative thinking, international collaboration and research that offer opportunities for improvement, rather than quick fixes.

Second, comparison of the statistics over time tends to show that things move more slowly than we might assume: the report highlights how South Korea’s progress to a country where 70 per cent of 25-34-year-olds are educated to tertiary level began with an expansion of secondary education in the 1960s. By contrast, the UK has also seen a rapid increase: the proportion of this age group with tertiary education (mostly degrees and other higher education in our case) rose from 29 per cent in 2000 to 52 per cent in 2016. British universities have also become highly popular among international students – accounting for 18.5 per cent of tertiary enrolments in 2015 (13 per cent of all international students across OECD countries). On average, spending per tertiary student in the UK is $24,452 (£18,421), much greater than the OECD average of $16,143 and almost twice the level of spending on secondary-level students.

On the face of it, this seems to explain the UK’s new status as the biggest spender of national income on education: 6.6 per cent compared with an average of 5.2 per cent in 2014.

This would seem to contradict recent reports of financial pressures in schools. An important piece of context is that the UK sources a high proportion of its education funding from private sources. This is especially the case at tertiary level, where only 28 per cent of expenditure on institutions is from public funding (the rest comes mainly from tuition fees) – although this may underestimate the true figure once future student loan write-offs are considered.

On top of a significant market for private schooling and tuition, though, the UK still allocates a larger-than-average share of public spending to primary and secondary education, and overall institutional spending is at least $2,000 greater per primary and secondary student than the OECD average.

However, England’s school teachers are unlikely to feel like they are working in conditions of plenty.

Workload pressures

The latest data shows there were, on average, 18 students per teacher in our primary schools, compared with an average of 15 across the OECD and 14 across the EU. There were 14 in public lower secondary education (key stage 3), compared with an average of 13 across the OECD and 11 across the EU – potentially contributing to workload pressures.

England’s primary school teachers’ average salaries were equivalent to 83 per cent of those of other tertiary-educated workers, just lower than 85 per cent across the OECD (for lower secondary teachers the England figure is 89 per cent compared with an average of 88). But wages have fallen especially rapidly here; the typical salary for experienced teachers having decreased by 12 per cent in real terms since 2005, compared with increases of 6 per cent at primary and lower secondary level across the OECD.

Based on this finding alone, the government’s reported intentions to look closely at the 1 per cent public sector pay cap certainly seems necessary.

It is also clear that, compared with many countries, England’s school staff teach students that have often benefitted less from early years education. Due to our early school starting age, patchy enrolment patterns and relatively low intensity of provision up to age 3, UK spending on early childhood education is lower than the OECD average: we spend 0.5 per cent of our GDP, compared with a 0.8 per cent average. Of that 0.5 per cent, only half is from the public purse, compared with 82 per cent on average across the OECD.

As well as reassuring us that we are not alone in our struggles for a better education system, Education at a Glance 2017 highlights that, whilst we should celebrate the export success story of our higher education system, it is important not to forget the fundamental provision needed to ensure that a majority of our young people can benefit from it if they want to.

Peter Sellen is the chief economist at the Education Policy Institute and tweets at @Peter_Sellen