Spending on schools is now falling, but is still 6% higher than in 2009/10. Teacher numbers have kept pace with rising pupil numbers, although there are recruitment gaps in some key subjects and more teachers are leaving the profession. Pupil attainment, meanwhile, has remained broadly flat.

Spending on schools has risen by 6% in real terms since 2009/10.

Change in spending on schools in England

Since 2009/10, day-to-day spending on schools has risen by 6% in real terms, having taken a slight dip in 2016/17. This purely covers schools – primary (ages 5–11) and secondary (up to age 16) – and not other components of the education budget, such as youth services or early years provision, or post-16 education (which is funded separately).

At the 2015 Spending Review, the overall school budget was protected in real terms, but not in per-pupil terms. So, while overall spending is set to remain fairly stable, individual schools will feel a squeeze. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has estimated that when rising costs are also taken into account – specifically rising pensions and National Insurance contributions – these plans imply an 8% drop in per-pupil real funding between 2014/15 and 2019/20.[1]

But this is not the whole story. On top of these changes, the distribution of schools funding is also set to change under the new National Funding Formula (NFF). These plans will protect some schools from the worst of the spending squeeze, but signal additional funding pressures for others. According to analysis from the think tank, the Education Policy Institute, the proposals published in March this year would have seen around a half of primary and secondary schools face real-terms per-pupil spending cuts of between 6% and 11% by 2019/20.[2]

Following significant public pressure, the Government has now modified these implementation plans. In July this year, Education Secretary Justine Greening promised an extra £1.3bn over two years for schools, taken from elsewhere in her department’s budget. The formula will be introduced in 2018/19 (with a ‘soft’ launch allowing local authorities to determine their own allocations within their total budgets), but extra cash will be made available between 2018/19 and 2019/20 to ease the transition. At worst, schools will receive a 0.5% cash increase in their per-pupil budget this year – which, given inflation, still constitutes a real-terms cut.[3] So, the worst of the squeeze has been postponed, but by no means eliminated.

The recent growth in primary pupil numbers is beginning to feed into secondary schools.

Pupil numbers in primary and secondary schools

Overall, the number of pupils in state-funded schools has risen by 6% since 2009. This has been driven by primary-age students, numbers of whom have risen 13% since 2009 (from around 4.1 million to 4.6 million), reflecting a high birth rate in the early years of the century.

That increase is now beginning to feed through into secondary schools. Numbers of secondary school pupils are currently 2% lower than they were in 2009 (3.22 million in 2017, down from 3.28 million), but they have risen consistently since 2014. By 2026, the secondary school population is forecast to increase by a further 19%, while the primary school population will level off.[4]

There are signs that this is beginning to create more competition for places in popular secondary schools. While 90% of pupils received an offer from their first-choice primary school in 2017, 83.5% received an offer from their first-choice secondary school, down from a high of 86.7% in 2013 (although still higher than 83.2% in 2009).[5]

Teacher numbers have so far largely kept pace with rising pupil numbers – though there are signs this is beginning to change.

Pupil-teacher ration in primary and secondary schools

Since 2009, pupil-to-teacher ratios have remained broadly steady, especially in primary schools, despite rising pupil numbers. Ratios were also broadly flat in secondary schools up to 2014, but have subsequently begun to rise: from 15.9 in 2014 to 16.4 in 2016, the highest ratio across the whole 2009–16 period. While this is not a major increase, it means that, as the increased numbers of primary school pupils begin to reach secondary age, class sizes are starting to get bigger. In 2014, 9.4% of pupils in English secondary schools were in classes of over 30 pupils; by 2017, this had risen to 11.5%.[6]

Targets for the recruitment of new teachers continue to be missed, despite signs of improvement.

Comparison of postgraduate entrants into Initial Teacher Training to target

The Department for Education (DfE) publishes an annual estimate of the number of new teachers it needs to train. Since 2012/13, this target has been missed by a considerable margin: in 2015/16, numbers of trainee teachers were 16% below target.* In the past year, there have been signs of improvement, as numbers of new recruits fell back to 14% below target. Yet numbers of new trainees remain far below what the DfE estimates is needed.[7]

Shortages are also especially acute in particular subjects. Last year, the targets for trainees were missed by 32% (228) in Computer Science; by 16% (497) in Maths; by 19% (204) in Physics; and by 59% (611) in Design and Technology.[8] The Government’s plans to increase uptake of particular subjects at GCSE through the ‘English Baccalaureate’ will create additional pressures on recruitment in some of them – most notably modern foreign languages – although schools now have until well into the next decade to implement these changes.[9]

The number of open vacancies for teachers has also increased. At the time of the 2016 November workforce census, 27% of secondary schools reported at least one vacancy, up from 23% in 2015 and 15.9% in 2010. In primary schools, the proportion rose from 4.2% in 2010 to 6.9% in 2015, and then to 8.9% last year.[10] These figures may underestimate the true extent of the problem: by November, school leaders may have rearranged their plans if they failed to recruit the teachers they needed at the start of the year. The Commons Education Select Committee stated earlier this year that teacher shortage is a “continuing challenge” for the sector, and called on the Government to do more to improve both the recruitment and retention of teachers.[11]

More teachers are leaving secondary schools teaching than joining it.

Teacher entry and 'wastage' rates

In secondary schools, the number of teachers leaving the profession outstrips the number who are entering it. In 2016, the equivalent of 10.4% of the secondary teaching workforce left state school teaching, up from 9.5% in 2011.** An equivalent of 9.8% of the total workforce joined the profession last year. During this period, of course, the number of pupils in secondary schools was falling.

Only 18% of teachers leaving the profession in 2016 retired: the vast majority were of working age. The number of teachers going ‘out of service’ (that is, not retiring) rose from 25,260 in 2011 to 34,910 in 2016, a 38% increase.[12] As with recruitment, retention issues do not fall equally across the subjects. Science, maths and language teachers have higher than average leaving rates in the first few years after training – despite the higher bursaries offered to trainees.[13]

Better employment prospects for those with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds may tempt those teachers away from the profession.[14] But overall, leaving teachers are not going to higher-paid jobs: analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) shows that, after one year, the wages of teachers leaving were on average 10% lower than the wages of those who stayed (between 2001 and 2015). The vast majority of those teachers stayed in the education sector, for example becoming private school teachers or teaching assistants, or moving into work in further or higher education.[15]

Teachers’ workload may be a more significant factor behind the difficulties schools face in retaining teachers. In a recent survey conducted by the NAO, 67% of school leaders cited workload as a barrier to retention (compared with 34% citing pay).[16] Teachers in England work on average 48.2 hours a week – higher than almost all other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.[17]

Pupils’ attainment is broadly flat.

Pupil attainment at the end of key stage 2 and key stage 4

The Government uses two key proxies to assess the quality of schools: Ofsted inspections and exam results. In March 2017, 89% of schools had been rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ at their last inspection, with 8% rated ‘requires improvement’ and 2% rated ‘inadequate’. This is an improvement on March 2014, when 21% of schools were in the two bottom categories, although the multi-year gap between inspections means we cannot make a clean comparison.[18]

The best-known metrics of student attainment – achieving level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths at the end of primary school, and achieving five GCSEs at grades A*–C, including English and maths – have showed slight improvements since 2009/10 and 2015/16.

However, reforms to the way students are assessed, and changes to the way the data are collected, make it difficult to make comparisons over time. From 2013/14, resits (where students retake exams in pursuit of a higher grade) were no longer counted in the aggregate A*–C figures for GCSE, for example, leading to a drop in the headline number. Larger reforms to school assessment – including the abolition of numbered levels in primary school and the replacement of A–U grades at GCSE with grades from 1 to 9 – will further prohibit easy comparisons in the future.

International benchmarks offer potentially more consistent measures of student attainment over time. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) surveys of educational performance also suggest that the quality of education in England – in terms of students’ knowledge and skills in mathematics, reading and science – has not risen, but remained broadly flat in recent years.[19]

The attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children persists, although it has narrowed since 2009. Research by the Education Policy Institute suggests that, in 2016, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds – defined as children who had been eligible for free school meals at any point in the previous six years – were on average 18.9 months behind the rest of their peers at the end of secondary school, in terms of their relative progress. At the end of primary school, the gap was 9.5 months. These gaps have narrowed since 2009, from 21.7 months and 11.5 months respectively.[20]

* Total trainee teachers recruited compared with target. Subjects which recruited more than their target number have been recoded to their target levels, to discount the effects of over-recruitment in some subjects.

** Teachers who are no longer in service in publicly funded schools in England.