It must have seemed like quite a discovery, when Fraser Nelson found a Department for Education report which proved “that the whole premise of Labour’s education policy – that cash matters most – was false”. Ignore for a moment the caricature of Labour’s 13 years in government; have Deloitte (who analysed the data on which Fraser Nelson’s argument is based) really discovered that levels of funding don’t matter in improving educational outcomes?
Jonny Medland is a law student and a Labour activist in Battersea
It must have seemed like quite a discovery when Fraser Nelson found a Department for Education report which proved “that the whole premise of Labour’s education policy – that cash matters most – was false”.
Nelson argues in today’s Telegraph that the “association between spending and progress was comprehensively disproved by the last government” and cites a study by Deloitte accountants to make his case.
Ignore for a moment the caricature of Labour’s 13 years in government; have Deloitte (who analysed the data on which Fraser Nelson’s argument is based) really discovered that levels of funding don’t matter in improving educational outcomes?
Nelson doesn’t provide a link to the actual study his article relies on, but the full Deloitte report, located in a backwater of the Department for Education’s website, is predictably more nuanced. The Executive Summary includes a disclaimer that “In this study we cannot determine the educational impact of significant real increases in per pupil funding over the last decade, or whether investment has had the impact of improving schools in less well-off areas”.
In other words, the study simply doesn’t make the assertion that Nelson argues it does – it isn’t what Deloitte were looking at.
Although Deloitte’s analysis is based on the National Pupil Database – a vast dataset tracking pupil performance and socio-economic characteristics, school demographics and a range of other factors, the report on which Nelson is relying doesn’t track pupils over a period of time and it doesn’t track changes in schools. It monitors pupil results at Key Stage 4 (between ages 14-16) in the 2010-11 school year.
That’s it. As a report it’s valuable and interesting, although the fact that it goes on to recommend seven specific potential areas for further work should have been a bit of a give-away that it hadn’t disproved a possible link between pupil funding and school improvement. It certainly doesn’t claim to show that funding makes no difference to public services in general.
Spending money isn’t the only – or even the most important – way to improve an education system. Deloitte’s key conclusion that “the quality of education…a pupil receives is strongly associated with better pupil performance, even when controlling for socio-economic factors” has been backed up by a wide range of academic research, and analysis of global school improvement by organisations such as McKinsey.
But if we’re going to have a serious discussion on how to improve public services, and how to restructure them to deliver better outcomes with declining resources, we can’t pretend that one evaluation of Key Stage four results in one school year tells us everything that we need to know.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.