Page last updated at 02:38 GMT, Saturday, 5 December 2009

A fair verdict on Labour years?

By Mike Baker

Children in class
Schools cannot be measured like factories, Mike Baker says

A "damning indictment" of Labour's record was how one newspaper described this week's official statistical report on UK schools over the past 12 years.

Another summed it up as: 'Labour's £30 billion annual spending on schools fails to boost standards'.

But the reality of the report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is that the verdict on the past 12 years is quite clear: more resources have gone into schools and they have both increased the numbers of children being educated and raised exam pass rates.

Now, of course, there are always limitations to statistical analyses, especially when they try to measure something as subjective as quality. I'll come to that in a moment.

But what is remarkable about this report is that while it clearly contains good news about the school system, it has been spun into an attack on the record of the past 12 years.

Bizarrely even the government seems to be embarrassed by it - perhaps ministers only read the newspaper headlines, not the report itself.

There are times, though - particularly when an election is looming - when commentators seem determined to see only bad news in what is happening in schools, even when the evidence suggests the opposite.

Open mind

So, if you have an open mind on these things, let's examine what the ONS report actually says.

As a statistical analysis, it deals with both 'inputs' and 'outputs' of the school system.

The inputs are measured in terms of: the number of teachers and support staff employed, the amount of books and learning materials in schools, and the amount of new building.

To discount the effect of inflation, these inputs are measured in terms of volume (eg, the number of teachers) rather than the cash spent on them.

The figures show that the resources put into schools in the UK rose by 33% between 1996 and 2008.

The largest element of this increased input was the doubling of the numbers of support staff, particularly teaching assistants. This has been one of the quiet revolutions of the past decade in schools.

Output has risen by 33% as a result of a 33% rise in input

Other significant factors were the cost of government-financed places in private nursery education and - rather less usefully - the increased amount spent on things such as school electricity bills (perhaps for all those ICT suites).

The ONS report measures the "outputs" of the school system in terms of both quantity and quality.

Quantity is relatively easily measured. Here it includes the change in overall pupil numbers and levels of attendance.

The big change here has been the 70% increase in the number of pupils in pre-school education as a result of extending government-funded places to younger children.

Overall the change in quantity has been small at just 4.6%. That is because the rise in nursery education is largely offset by demographic change, particularly the decline in the number of children of primary school age.

The other half of the output measure is quality. This is much harder to measure.

The ONS bases its measurement of quality on GCSEs and their equivalents and, in Scotland, on Standard Grades.

It acknowledges that no single measure can capture all the changes in quality in a school system.

According to the ONS, the total increase in the output of education - combining both quantity and quality - amounts to 33.4%.

So, in short, output has risen by 33% as a result of a 33% rise in input.

The ONS report therefore concludes that productivity has remained constant between 1996 and 2008.

'Not factories'

Some have interpreted this to mean there have been no benefits from the increased resources put into schools.

But that is wrong. If schools were factories and the extra raw materials going in equalled the extra products coming out, it would be fair to say there has been no gain in productivity.

But schools are not factories. Every extra child passing an extra grade at GCSE, or every extra child attending nursery education, is a real gain, even if it has required extra resources to achieve that.

The school system may be no more "efficient", but it has educated more children and increased the grades achieved by the average pupil.

So it is misleading to claim that the extra money put in by the Labour government has failed to "boost standards".

To argue that the extra resources put into education have achieved no return just because 'productivity' has remained static is nonsense

It might be legitimate to argue that the improvement in GCSE grades is not enough in return for such a boost on resources.

It could even be argued that, as GCSEs have changed over time, they cannot be a reliable measure of changes in quality.

But to argue that the extra resources put into education have achieved no return just because "productivity" has remained static is nonsense.

Indeed, as has been pointed out, if the sole aim was to increase productivity then all you need to do is sack all the teaching assistants or increase class sizes. But few would argue that this would raise standards.

Where Labour's record is vulnerable to attack is the failure to improve standards by more than they have done.

The improvement measured by the ONS amounts to two extra GCSE passes at grade C (or their equivalent) for every pupil in the UK over the 12-year period.

That is a significant achievement but it still leaves a long way to go.

At primary school level (where the national tests or Sats results are not included in the ONS measure of quality) there has been a substantial improvement in the proportion of pupils reaching the expected levels, but this has hit a plateau in recent years.

'Hot topic'

Of course, improvements in the quality of education cannot be measured solely in terms of exams.

So, the ONS also lists a number of other measures that have not been included in its statistics.

So, for example, it cites evidence showing that there have been improvements in: teaching standards (measured by Ofsted), smaller class sizes, and the proportion of children engaging in sports regularly.

Set against that, there has been a rise in the proportion of 16-18 year olds not in education, employment or training.

As we head into a general election in which schools policy is likely to be a hot topic, there is a genuine debate to be had over whether the Blair and Brown governments have done as much as they might have done to improve education.

There is certainly a debate to be had over teaching methods and standards of qualifications.

But it is nonsense to interpret this study as showing that nothing has been gained in return for the considerable increase in resources that have gone into our schools.

Moreover, elementary logic suggests any improvements in standards are likely to lag some way after the start of educational reform.

The pupils who took their GCSEs in 2008 had barely started primary school in 1997.

They have received some of the benefits of the extra resources, but the pupils coming through over the next few years will be the ones who really gain the benefits of smaller classes, extra resources, and more classroom assistants.

It is the changes in quality over the next few years that will be the real measure of the extra investment in schools between 1996 and 2008.

Mike Baker is an education writer and broadcaster. BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast his three-part history of primary schools.

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