30th April 2021

A comparison of school institutions and policies across the UK

This new report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, finds that the four UK nations have begun to adopt increasingly different approaches to education policy after twenty years of devolution.  

The research, which is the latest major study to directly compare schools policy in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, shows that Scotland is spending significantly more per pupil than the rest of the UK, and has also increased school spending the most over the course of the last decade.

England appears to be targeting more resources towards disadvantaged pupils, committing the highest level of funding for poorer pupils through the Pupil Premium – while schools in deprived areas in Wales are most likely to report problems with their resources, such as education materials and school buildings.

The study also finds that Scotland is ahead of the other UK nations on class sizes (pupil-teacher ratios), where in primary schools it has just 16 pupils for every one teacher, compared to 21 pupils or higher in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In secondary schools, there are just 12 pupils per teacher in Scotland, compared to 16 or higher in the other UK nations.

While devolution has ensured policy reflects national priorities – leading to a growing divergence on assessments, exams and the curriculum – and while it has also allowed policymakers to learn from successful approaches in other parts of the UK, the new report also identifies some major challenges.

With the four nations taking separate paths in education, researchers caution that this could cause problems for young people moving between UK nations for work or study, with an increasing risk that they will lose out due to a lack of understanding about different exams.  

As political parties debate the future of education ahead of the 2021 elections in Scotland and Wales, and as the UK collectively looks towards education recovery, the research provides timely insights into the impact of devolution to date, each nation’s current priorities, and the future direction of education policy.

You can read the full report here. 



Key findings


School spending: how do UK nations compare?

  • School spending per pupil in 2019-2020 was highest in Scotland (£7,300), followed by England and Wales (£6,100) and lowest in Northern Ireland (£5,800).
  • Cuts to school spending per pupil over the last ten years have been largest in Northern Ireland (11%), followed by England (9%) and Wales (5%).
  • In contrast, cuts to spending per pupil in Scotland have been more than reversed with a net increase of 5% since 2009-10, although most of this extra funding has been used to deliver higher levels of teacher pay. Teacher pay scales rose by a total of 10% over 2018 and 2019, which is counted in Scotland’s per pupil funding levels.
  • Northern Ireland’s larger spending cuts are partially due to significant delays in agreeing teacher salaries.
  • Headteachers are responsible for more of their school’s budget in England (90%) than in Wales (84%) and a much larger share than in Scotland (66%) and Northern Ireland (60%). National and local government have much more influence over spending in Scotland and Northern Ireland.


England offers the most support for its disadvantaged pupils, while poorer schools in Wales often struggle with resources

  • Funding explicitly set aside for disadvantaged pupils is greatest in England, where the Pupil Premium covers more pupils than equivalent schemes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • Funding for deprived pupils through nations’ funding formulas is also likely highest in England.
  • Disadvantaged schools across the UK are more likely to report problems attracting teachers, particularly in England and Scotland where nearly half (44% and 45%) report problems, compared to a third in Wales and Northern Ireland (34% and 31%).
  • Schools with more disadvantaged pupils in Wales are far more likely to report shortages with materials such as books and IT (45%) than those in England (27%), Scotland (10%) and Northern Ireland (34%).
  • Disadvantaged schools in Wales are also far more likely to report having poor quality school buildings and infrastructure (60%), compared to those in England (32%), Scotland (24%) and Northern Ireland (47%)


Scotland has the smallest class sizes (pupil-teacher ratios)

  • Scotland has the lowest pupil-teacher ratios in the UK: pupil-teacher ratios have been falling in Scotland over the last 25 years, with 16 pupils per teacher in primary schools in 2019-20, compared to 21 and above for the rest of the UK.
  • In secondary schools, there are only 12 pupils for every one teacher in Scotland, compared to 16 pupils or higher per secondary teacher for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Pupil-teacher ratios have mostly remained stable in England, but have been steadily increasing in Northern Ireland and Wales and are now higher than they were in 2000.


Freedoms given to schools to shape their curriculum differ

  • Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all emphasise a broad set of skills across different areas of learning in their new curriculums, while England maintains a strong focus on traditional subjects.
  • In theory, schools and teachers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have greater autonomy to shape the content of the curriculum, while in England there is more specific guidance from the government about minimum expectations for schools.
  • Despite this, EPI analysis of PISA results shows that the perceived role of teachers in shaping curriculum content is lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, with a large perceived role for government. Similarly, in England the perceived role of government in shaping the school curriculum is the lowest, despite greater specific guidance offered.


Some of the greatest differences among UK nations are seen in approaches to assessment and exams

  • After initially abolishing SATs and league tables, Scotland and Wales have both since brought back national testing in some form, but this is now used more to judge individual pupils’ progress and inform teachers. Schools in England are more likely to use pupil test results to judge teachers’ effectiveness.
  • Schools in England and Wales are more likely to use test scores to group pupils by ability.
  • England, Wales and Northern Ireland all use GCSEs and A levels – but in recent years they have diverged significantly: England uses a 9-1 GCSE system, while Wales and Northern Ireland use A*-G. England focuses on final assessments, while a modular system has been retained by Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • As with other changes to education policy, these changes to assessments have allowed policymakers to focus on national policy priorities, but they also present risks, given many young people move across UK countries for university and work. If universities and employers find it hard to navigate and understand an increasingly complicated grading system, there is a clear risk that certain young people could be disadvantaged.




This report is funded by Nuffield Foundation. The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.