Today, Sibieta Economics of Education is proud to launch School Spending in Wales. This provides an overview of changes in school spending in Wales over the last decade, projections for spending up to the next Assembly elections in 2021 and the future challenges facing schools, local authorities and policymakers.
This marks the first report of Sibieta Economics of Education and exemplifies the approach we will take in all our work. Our overall aim is to improve understanding of the challenges and trade-offs in school and education policy. As well as providing private and tailored consultancy work, we will publish briefings on key education policy challenges. These briefings will be politically neutral and focus on using rigorous analysis and high-quality evidence to illustrate what drives decisions and trends. We will also examine education and school policy right across the UK. Devolution represented an exciting opportunity to learn from policy experiments and differing challenges, but policymakers and the media have too often focus on the individual nations of the UK in isolation.
School spend per pupil in Wales due to fall by £500 per pupil between 2010 and 2021
We find that school spending per pupil in Wales fell by about 5% between 2010 and 2018, after accounting for inflation. That represents a slightly larger cut than the 3% seen in Scotland, but is smaller than the 8% plus cuts seen in England and Northern Ireland over the same period. A key driver of these differences is likely to have been growth in pupil numbers. Whereas pupil numbers grew by 4% in Northern Ireland and by nearly 10% in England, numbers were largely constant in Wales and Scotland between 2010 and 2018.
Looking to the future, the Welsh Government has made a range of commitments on school spending, including an extra £100m by the end of this Assembly term to improve school standards. Even with these commitments, we project that spending per pupil will continue to fall. Leading to a total cut of £500 per pupil or nearly 9% between 2010 and 2021, taking spending per pupil back to a level last seen in Wales in 2006.
If the Welsh Government wanted to keep school spending per pupil constant in real-terms over this Assembly term, it would need to increase school funding by an additional £120m over and above existing commitments. The Welsh Government’s ability to make such commitments will be heavily shaped by the level of the block grant beyond 2019, which will be determined in the UK Spending Review due by the end of 2019. However, the Department for Education has kept school spending per pupil in England frozen in real-terms for the last two years. If school funding in England and Wales continue on their current trajectory, the gap in spending per pupil between England and Wales, which our analysis suggests had all but closed by 2017, could begin to widen again.
Cuts to spend per pupil will make it harder to improve school standards in Wales
These cuts in school spending per pupil pose severe challenges for policymakers, schools and local authorities in Wales. The Welsh Government has high ambitions to improve school standards in Wales, including a new curriculum from 2022. Delivering higher school standards with the same level of spending per pupil as seen in 2006 will be extremely challenging, particularly as the latest evidence suggests that cuts in school spending can stall educational progress.
Part of the reason why spending per pupil is due to fall in Wales is because pupil numbers are beginning to rise again. For example, secondary school pupil numbers are expected to rise from 180,000 in 2018 to 200,000 by 2023, a rise of 10%. Having seen teacher numbers fall by 1,400 or 5% between 2010 and 2018, schools are going to need to recruit and retain more teachers in next few years to cater for the extra pupils.
In addition, the Welsh Government is implementing an ambitious Additional Learning Needs transformation programme, which is due to begin in 2020. Whilst there are many laudable aims in this strategy, this is likely to put further pressure on school and local authority budgets.
Schools budgets have been under pressure right across the UK. To date, cuts have been slightly slower in Wales than in England and Norther Ireland. On current policy, however, cuts in Wales are due to continue through to 2021. At the same time, the Welsh Government is committed to improving school standards, a transformation of support for pupils with Additional Learning Needs and will need to find extra teachers to meet a growing pupil population. This will much harder with a level of spending per pupil in 2021 that is currently on course to be about the same level as it was 15 years earlier in 2006.