Public spending. It goes up. It goes down. Yet new figures show spending on education has gone up, up and up for more than 50 years - reflecting our growing expectations for children. Are we really ready to end that, asks Michael Blastland in his regular column.
All that I wanted was numbers
but no one was counting. In the laptop's dim glow, one thing was clear: I had stumbled on mystery.
This week's column - with apologies to detective fiction - is about missing numbers. We are sleuthing for stats. As we discover them, they will redefine the challenge facing whoever forms the next governments.
We'll confront that conclusion later. First, what is this data and in what way was it missing?
It is education spending, though the implications go wider. You might think the spending numbers for education would be bread and butter to politics, the 1, 2, 3 of debate. But finding out how much the UK spent on education over the lifetime of the modern welfare state is far from simple. There is no single, easily-available source. The online trail, for example, often goes cold in the early 1980s.
If you find that a surprise, I sympathise. In public argument, the basic stats, the simple context to present politics that every politician and voter should need, are not as common as they should be.
By ransacking different sources, you can eventually put together a series. But here's the next oddity. These seldom adjust for pupil numbers. Does that matter? You bet: in the 1960s there was a baby-boom, pupil numbers soared. From the late 1970s, boom turned to bust: the school age population fell sharply, by about 2.7 million children, nearly 25% in 15 years. Think of it another way: nearly one school-child in every four disappeared.
Education spending per pupil has risen three-fold in real terms since the war
Ups and downs that wild make a difference. If the money has to stretch to far more kids, it isn't as much as it looks. If there are far fewer schools, it should go far further.
And these are not the only wrinkles in the data. No one I could find had worked out how much we really spent on our children's education.
The trail led at last to Paul Bolton. He works on education in the House of Commons library. Could he help? The underlying trends might be important, I said. Would he have a look, and, while he was about it, at both public and private spending?
"Interesting," he said. And went to work.
That work is enormously useful. As we study the charts and data, the results are fascinating. First, the obvious: the share of what we spend as a nation on education has risen dramatically since the war.
Adjusted for pupil numbers, this index of public and private spending multiplies by two or three times. That is not simply two or three times as much money. It is a bigger share of a growing pot, since GDP per head was itself also growing, by nearly four times since the end of the war. In all, a phenomenal growth, under both governing parties.
Second, periods known for cuts turn out less straightforward. The trend between 1979 to 1990, for example, under Margaret Thatcher, is less dramatic than often characterised, largely because of the steep fall in pupil numbers.
And the conclusions? Not Paul Bolton's, but my own, for what they are worth. For what strikes me about that line is a question: after 60 years of such prodigious growth, is this the moment that it will stop? Why?
We have a powerful trend - with interruptions only around moments of economic crisis - which soon reasserts itself. What's more, this is a trend in private spending as well as public. For generations, people have devoted an ever-bigger share of what they have to their children's education, sometimes faster, sometimes slower but, after 60 years, vastly greater.
Are we really prepared to step off the education escalator?
The tendency now is to talk of government finances as if short-term tightened belts are the answer. But if we are simply in the middle of another interruption what happens when the long-term trend reasserts itself.
In short: if the future is remotely like the past, nothing shot-term will stifle the return of rising expectations. No government managed this in the past.
If these pressures are to go away, then so must the expectations of a growing commitment to education. Not temporarily, but forever. Is that desirable? Is it likely?
If, on the other hand, the expectations are to be met, expectations that will in all probability long outlive the current crisis, then we need to say how: privately, or through taxation?
Either way, the spending dilemma is tougher than it seems. It is probably not temporary, but permanent. It is not a recession-induced hiccup, more likely a chronic condition induced by our own expectations. Critically, it will grow more acute with time, not less as commonly supposed. And that leads to questions of deep ideology far more than short-term housekeeping.
The one consolation is that it is a dilemma, with choices, if only our leaders would offer them, not a fait accompli one way or another.
The past is no certain guide to the future. But it can help us to a sense of proportion. My sense of the proportions here is that the present debate has scarcely begun to address the challenges. Does the missing data also help to show that we have been missing the argument?
Finally, for those who like their charts, a trickier one to navigate, what the team at the Magazine team have called the Brands Hatch graph, but worth it, also from Paul Bolton, this time for the wider age group that includes sixth formers, showing the real numbers rather than an index.
THE GEEKS' GRAPH AND HOW IT WORKS
The line starts bottom left in 1952 when we spent about 2.9% of the nation's income on the education of about 10.7 million children
It goes up and down with total spending as a share of national income, and left and right with pupil numbers
The gridlines help us to see when a rise is really a rise, for only if the line tends towards crossing a gridline is it really changing the amount of spending per pupil
The gridlines show a constant ratio of GDP per head to school-age population
So what does this graph tell us?
- We see starkly the fall in school age children in the 1980s, from well above 13 million to well below 11 million, and how the fact that spending is popularly believed to have been cut at this time might not reflect reality
- We also see two periods of real upheaval: the 1970s, when a combination of inflation and recession made an all-round mess of the data as it did with planned levels of spending at the time, and the 1990s recession and recovery when pupil numbers also rose for the first time in a generation
- They also show a rise under New Labour of about one percentage point up to the current recession, similar to the rise during the Conservative governments of John Major and Margaret Thatcher
There are problems with this series of data as a statement of the nation's commitment to education. To mention a few, it doesn't take account of the recent expansion of state nursery education to four year olds, for example. It measures the pupil-aged population, not the actual number of pupils. And money is not the only measure of how much we care.
But this is an improvement. And if we do care, if we are serious, ought we not to take more pains over the basics, to see where they might lead?
Below is a selection of your comments.
A couple of things you haven't included - transport and food. Subsidies to school meals and transport to school for children travelling more than the statutory distance are both included in the education budget. I'm not sure about grants for school uniform.
Just because the number of pupils has fallen doesn't mean that the money required falls exactly the same amount. If there are fewer pupils some of the costs will fall more or less in proportion (for example, exercise books - if you have 150 kids instead of 200 kids, you only need to buy three quarters as many exercise books), but some of the other costs will stay the same (like school heating costs, as very few schools will actually close, since demand may go back up again soon and you still need to have schools near where pupils live). This needs to be taken into account in order to have a fuller understanding of how the relationship between funding, pupil numbers and quality of education works.
Has anyone ever studied the long term impact of pubic spending on supporting children with special educational needs on society? How much do we spend on support for children with statements? What do these children go on to do as adults? And does this expenditure really equal a more educated/balanced/integrated society?
Your units for comparison are flawed by changing demographics. For example, children left school at 14, then 15 now 16 or 18 in present day - that would change the school population numbers. As the article states we now have to include 0-4 year olds, so from the 1950s there were nine school years, now potentially 18 school years. In those terms has spending actually gone down?
So after decades of spending more money per child, with easier exams, and more graduates stacking shelves in supermarkets we have to import people to do jobs that our youths won't do. Money well spent.
Andrew Calver-Jones, Cheltenham