'Sticks in the throat': Private schools spend at least £6,800 more per-pupil

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The yawning chasm between private school spending per-pupil and that in the state sector is a stark reminder of the government’s failure to invest in schools.

School leaders say that the huge gaps between private and state education spending “stick in the throat” given that state school spending per-pupil has fallen by 14 per cent in real-terms since the late 2000s.

An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Sibieta, 2021) shows that in 2009, state spending per-pupil was approaching £8,000 (in today’s prices). Compared to net fees of around £11,000 in private schools, this meant a gap of around £3,100.

The analysis includes both current and capital spending given that private schools need to fund their own capital expenditure.

Since then, state school spending per-pupil has dropped 14 per cent to about £6,900 in 2019/20. However, net private school fees have risen to £13,700 in 2019/20, a real-terms increase of 23 per cent.

As a result, the gap in spending between the two sectors more than doubled to £6,800.

It means that net private school fees were effectively double state school spending levels in 2019/20.

Recent increases to state school spending – core spending, funding to cover higher employer pension contributions and higher capital spending – have seen the gap drop to £6,500 (92 per cent) in 2020/21.

The analysis states: “This represents the average gap and there is clearly a wide distribution in spending levels within the state-funded and private sectors. However, funding for the most deprived state-funded secondary schools (about £7,000 in 2019/20) is only half the value of average fee levels in private schools, and private school fees are 2.4 times more than funding levels at the least deprived state secondary schools.”

Looking across phases, the difference in fee levels between senior and junior private schools (around 13 to 14 per cent over the last three years) matches the difference between state-funded secondary and primary school funding levels (14 per cent in 2019/20).

The analysis adds: “There are good reasons to believe that these figures probably understate the gap in resources. First, we do not account for investment income, endowments or gifts/donations, which are likely to push up private school spending by more. Second, private school fees are for the UK as a whole, with state school spending shown for England only due to the availability of data over time. Figures for private school fees in England only would probably be higher given that figures for Scotland and Wales are below the UK average.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the analysis laid bare the lack of investment in state education: “The fact is that per-pupil spending in real terms is lower now than it was a decade ago for state funded education. The government’s failure to invest in schools over the past decade has forced them to cut back on staff, support for pupils, and activities that enrich the school day. A far more ambitious programme of investment is required from the government.”

For its part, the government pledged funding increases to the schools budget of £7.1bn from 2020 to 2023 – £2.6bn in 2020/21, a further £2.2bn in 2021/22, and an additional £2.3bn in 2022/23.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, recognises this, but says it still falls short. He said the real-terms funding cuts for state schools were “outrageous” when compared to increased private school fees.

He continued: “The funding gap between the two sectors has always been there of course, but the fact it has widened to such a huge extent does stick in the throat.

“It means that while state schools and colleges have been forced to cut back on things like subject choices, pastoral support, and extra-curricular activities – and with secondary class sizes rising – independent schools have been able to improve their provision in all these areas.

“Surely the government should want the same opportunities for all children and young people. It may be naïve to think that state education funding could match the independent sector but it surely shouldn’t actually go into reverse.

“The government has an opportunity to address these issues in the spending review currently taking place. But will it live up to its mantra of levelling up?”

Elsewhere, the analysis found that despite the large increases in private school fees over the last decade, there has only been a small drop in the share of pupils attending private schools in England – from 7.1 per cent in 2010 to 6.5 per cent in 2020.

However, this fall is mainly driven by a rising pupil population, with the number of pupils in private schools remaining constant at around 560,000 to 570,000 over most of the last decade in England.

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