After the pomp and ceremony of Tuesday afternoon in Oxford, yesterday afternoon was devoted to attendance at a seminar arranged by the Centre for Education Economics around the topic of ‘school funding and outcomes’. The seminar was chaired by the Chief Executive of NfER and they also contributed one of the speakers. Other speakers included, an academic from the University of Surrey; a speaker from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and a civil servant from the National Audit office.
Data presented on the international evidence about funding and output used OECD data. This can be affected by the presence of so many different variables as to provide no clear signal, we need to know a lot more before any conclusions about direct causal relationship between funding levels and outcomes can be drawn. Teacher quality has featured as an important variable in some studies, especially in the USA, but even here it isn’t clear whether parental support and direct investment has been taken into account when looking at teacher outcomes.
The private spend by parents and the effects of such income on school outcomes needs further research and CfEE, the sponsors of the seminar, might like to look into how such influence might be researched. As long ago as 1986, I recorded a state school in Weybridge as including in its prospectus that ‘a donation of £14 requested from new pupils towards the school fund’. (Schools in London’s Commuterland). These days that same school now provides a list of support materials, including some that look like textbooks, parents may wish to provide for their offspring on arrival at the school. As an off-balance sheet expenditure it is difficult to measure the effects of such purchases on school outcomes, but the research community should try to do so.
Leaving aside the complexities of measuring teacher quality as a key variable in determining output levels, the seminar speakers and the audience, when asked to project forward how funding might change over time, were almost universally gloomy on the levels of school funding likely between now and the mid-2020s. Even beyond 2020, there is no clear picture, but rising pupil numbers and the prospect of a slowdown in the world economy at some point from present levels all seem to suggest continued funding challenges are likely, even if there isn’t any rebalancing of funds towards either or both of early years and further education.
The nightmare scenario of repaying student debt from existing government funding suggested by Labour must not be at the expense of other parts of the education system, including schools. Nevertheless, channelling funds to early years or technical education may require schools to make further economies unless new money can be found. This may, of course, reduce the teacher supply problem by creating fewer teaching posts, but if it increased the departure rate for existing teachers it could perversely make matters worse.
As the setter of policy for the school system, the DfE must take these issues into account. Whether it has done sufficiently we will hear some clues today when officials from the DfE appear in front of the Public Accounts Committee at Westminster.