Page last updated at 16:14 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 17:14 UK

So where will education axe fall?

By Mike Baker

classroom scene
No politician likes to say which areas will have to go

Gordon Brown has promised to protect school spending. Indeed, not only has he promised no cuts, he has pledged to invest more.

It seemed slightly odd that he did so just after his Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, had suggested ways to make big savings in school budgets, partly by reducing senior management. That had left head teachers' leaders hopping mad.

Nevertheless, Gordon Brown's pledge has opened the debate about which areas of education spending should be protected.

In the current climate it is hard to believe that any political party could promise to protect the entire education budget from nursery schools to universities, so it also raises a debate about where the cuts might fall.

But politicians tend to prefer to talk about where they will spend more, rather than where they plan to swing the axe.

So Gordon Brown not only talked about spending more on schools, but also promised more university places and more apprenticeships.

It will be interesting to see how David Cameron responds this week. But the Conservatives have already promised to provide 220,000 new school places and to pay for new schools to be opened by charities and parents' groups.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has proposed one candidate for pruning, suggesting his party may have to abandon its expensive policy of scrapping university tuition fees.

However, the Liberal Democrats retain plans to spend more, including reducing infant class sizes to just 15 and paying a "pupil premium" for schools in disadvantaged areas.

International comparison

So which other bits of education spending are likely to be sacrificed to pay for the political promises coming from all three parties?

There is never an easy area to cut. Just look at the outcry over this government's attempt to save a relatively small amount of money by ending funding for students taking a second undergraduate degree.

However, recent figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) might help the next government identify which areas of education are relatively well funded compared to spending patterns in other countries.

The preferred approach may involve taking a scalpel to specific projects

Across all areas of education spending, from primary school to university, the UK (it gives the UK not the four nations) spends just slightly above the average for all OECD countries.

While the UK spends just over £5,660 per student, seven other countries spend more, with the USA, Switzerland, Norway, Austria and Denmark all spending over £6,290.

However, if we drill down a little further, some interesting differences emerge.

The UK is relatively generous in the money it allocates to primary schools, with £4,862 spent per pupil compared to the OECD average of £4,050.

Universities are also relatively well funded, with the UK spending £9,715 per student compared to the OECD average of £7,760.

But spending on secondary school students is relatively less generous, with £5,515 per pupil, only a little above the average of £5,038.

This places the UK in 10th place for secondary school spending, compared with eighth for primary schools. But when it comes to universities we are the fifth most generous spenders.

So, does that mean there might be scope for spending a little less on universities? Could that mean asking students in England to pay more for their degrees than the current 25% contribution they make through fees?

Inconveniently for voters, who might like to know where the parties stand on this when they cast their votes, the impending review of student finance - which could suggest making students pay more - will not report until after the general election.

Of course, rather than taking a scythe to a whole sector of education, the preferred approach may involve taking a scalpel to specific projects.

Some teacher unions argue that we spend too much on testing and assessment and savings here could be diverted to the curriculum and teaching.

They point out that the cost of examination fees in a typical secondary school is the second largest expense after staff salaries.

The cost of the national school tests has been greatly reduced now that those at age 14 have been scrapped in England, but the last, ill-fated contract with the American company, ETS, cost over £150m.

Scrapping the remaining "Sats" would be a popular way of saving money with many teachers.

Quangos

A case might be put for reducing the spending on school buildings, which have seen considerable investment in recent years. £5.8bn will be spent on improving buildings in 2010-11, almost half of this going on the Building Schools for the Future programme and on Academies.

The Conservatives have indicated they would cut costs by reducing the number of quangos in education. For example, David Cameron would abolish the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

That might save money but most of its functions would have to be brought back within the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), presumably at extra cost.

The biggest quango of them all, the Learning and Skills Council, with a budget of over £12bn, is already due to be scrapped.

But it is being replaced by not one but several new funding agencies. And anyway most of the £12bn ends up in college budgets not on administration.

Of course, politicians say they will make cuts that will not harm front line services. But is it really possible to save enough this way?

The DCSF's central budget for communications, for example, is £34m. Corporate services cost £16m. Administration costs are £77m.

These areas might face further "efficiency savings", but these are tiny amounts compared to the overall education budget for England of £75bn.

The reality is that some parts of the education budget are likely to face cuts if school spending overall is to be boosted and if other political promises, such as those on class sizes and the "pupil premium", are to be met.

As we head into the election period, voters should be told what would have to be cut as well as what will receive more funding.

Mike Baker is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in education



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