In the most recent year (2022–23), school spending per pupil in Scotland was over £8,500. This is over 18% or £1,300 higher than the level seen in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, all around £7,200 per pupil. School spending per pupil in Scotland was already 6% higher than in England in 2010. Since then, the gap with the rest of the UK has significantly grown.

Policymakers in Scotland have taken advantage of relatively low growth in pupil numbers to deliver a large real-terms increase in spending per pupil. In England and Northern Ireland, total spending had to keep pace with rapid rises in pupil numbers. In Wales, pupil numbers have barely changed at all since 2010, but policymakers did not use this as an opportunity to increase spending per pupil.

These are some of the key findings of a new report, ‘How does school spending per pupil differ across the UK?’, by researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, published today and funded by the Nuffield Foundation. All figures are in 2022–23 prices and relate to total day-to-day school spending on children aged 3–19 by schools, local authorities and funding agencies.

Other key findings include:

  • Larger increases in Scotland. Spending per pupil in Scotland grew by 13% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2022–23. This partly reflects funding to cover higher teacher pay offers, such as the 7% salary rises in both 2019–20 and 2022–23. In Wales, spending per pupil in 2022–23 is only about 3% higher than in 2009–10, and it is about 2% higher in Northern Ireland than our earliest point of comparison in 2011–12. In England, spending per pupil is expected to get back to 2010 levels by next year.
  • Higher pressures from pupil numbers in England and Northern Ireland. Pupil numbers have grown by 13% in England since 2009–10 and by 8% in Northern Ireland since 2011–12. This meant that large rises in total spending were needed in England (12%) and Northern Ireland (10%) as part of efforts to keep pace with rising pupil numbers.
  • Smaller pressures from pupil numbers in Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, pupil numbers have only grown by 2% since 2009–10. This meant that growth in total spending in Scotland (15%) only had to be a bit higher than in England to deliver a much larger rise in spending per pupil in Scotland. In Wales, pupil numbers have barely changed at all since 2010. However, unlike Scotland, policymakers in Wales have not used this as an opportunity to deliver a big rise in spending per pupil. Instead, total spending and spending per pupil in Wales have both only grown by 3% in real terms since 2009–10.
  • Pupil numbers expected to drop across all nations. Forecasts for pupil numbers imply falls of about 6–8% across all four nations over the next five years, with further falls after that. On one level, this might make it easier to deliver real-terms increases in spending per pupil at a national level. However, falling pupil numbers can create headaches for individual schools. Funding for individual schools is likely to fall with pupil numbers, but costs might be mostly fixed in the short run.

Luke Sibieta, IFS Research Fellow and author, said: ‘School spending per pupil in Scotland is now over 18% higher than in the rest of the UK. This big gap mostly reflects less pressure from pupil numbers and relatively recent spending rises. It would be too soon to expect much of an effect on educational outcomes. However, spending per pupil in Scotland has been higher than in the rest of the UK for a long period and educational outcomes have continued to disappoint over the last decade.

‘In Northern Ireland, recent increases in school spending have just about reversed past cuts. However, there has been no agreement reached on teacher pay levels stretching back to 2021 and there are strong signals of budget cuts for next year.

‘In Wales, total spending and spending per pupil are only about 3% higher than in 2010. Unlike Scotland, policymakers in Wales did not use stable pupil numbers as an opportunity to deliver larger increases in spending per pupil. The vast majority of schools in Wales will now be experiencing falling pupil rolls, which may create budgetary headaches for individual schools as costs are unlikely to fall as quickly as pupil numbers.

‘In England, recent increases in spending per pupil should allow spending per pupil to get back to 2010 levels by 2024. However, higher pay settlements for teachers and other school staff are likely to place greater pressures on school budgets. Most schools should just about be able to afford expected pay rises from proposed budgets, but the situation is tight and this certainly won’t be the case for all schools.’

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said: ‘These new figures show a wide and growing disparity in funding for pupils between Scotland and the other three nations of the UK, but it's yet to be seen if the 18% of higher spend on Scottish students is effective in helping to narrow the gap in inequalities or improve the life chances of young people.’

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