In the current year (2021–22), core school spending per pupil is expected to be highest in Scotland (over £7,500), similar levels in England (£6,700) and Wales (£6,600), and lowest in Northern Ireland (£6,400).

Whilst there were real-terms cuts to school spending per pupil across all four nations over the past decade, policymakers have increasingly made different choices in recent years.

  • Scotland: Spending per pupil fell by 7% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2014–15. In contrast to the rest of the UK, there has since been a big recovery in spending per pupil. This was partially driven by the large increases in teacher pay in Scotland in 2018 and 2019, as well as extra COVID spending (not included in figures for other nations). However, even after making plausible adjustments, core spending per pupil in Scotland in 2021–22 is still likely to be over 6% higher than in 2009–10 and over £800 higher than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • England and Wales: The levels and trends in spending per pupil have been mostly similar across England and Wales. Wales saw a smaller real-terms cut between 2009–10 and 2018–19 (5%) than England (8%). Both nations have since seen an increase of 8% up to 2021–22. The net result is that spending per pupil is now slightly above 2009–10 levels in Wales, but still slightly below in England. However, the forces driving the changes have been very different across England and Wales. In England, total spending growth (12%) has not quite kept pace with rapid rises in pupil numbers (13% growth since 2009–10). In Wales, pupil numbers have hardly changed at all and total spending only needed to grow by a small amount (2%) to deliver a small real-terms increase. The similar levels of school spending per pupil in England and Wales also contrast with 14% higher overall spending per head on services in Wales.
  • Northern Ireland: There was a larger real-terms cut in spending per pupil (10%) in Northern Ireland up to 2018–19. This was partly driven by significant delays in agreeing teacher salaries. There has since been a 9% real-terms increase between 2018–19 and 2021–22, which partly includes the effect of back-pay for teachers. Despite these increases, planned spending per pupil is due to be about £6,400 per pupil in Northern Ireland in 2021–22, about 3% lower than in 2011–12 and still lower than in the rest of the UK.

Figures are in 2021–22 prices and represent new estimates of school spending per pupil across the UK from IFS researchers. Figures relate to total day-to-day school spending on children aged 3–19 by schools, local authorities and funding agencies. This analysis was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and forms part of a larger programme of work examining trends and challenges in education spending across different phases.

Luke Sibieta, IFS Research Fellow and author, said:

‘Over the last decade, there were cuts to school spending per pupil right across the UK. In Scotland, large recent increases mean that spending has more than recovered and core spending per pupil is now likely to be over £800 higher than in the rest of the UK. Despite recent increases, spending per pupil in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is still close to or just below levels seen a decade earlier.

‘However, it is important to remember higher spending need not automatically translate into better educational outcomes. Indeed, international comparisons of test scores suggest numeracy and science scores were declining in high-spending Scotland relative to the OECD average up to 2018. It remains to be seen whether extra spending in Scotland since 2018 will arrest this trend.’

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

‘This IFS analysis shows that the increasing divergence in education policy between the four nations of the UK extends to school spending per pupil, where funding to support Scottish pupils has held up better than for their counterparts in the other nations. A major cause for concern is that funding for education recovery programmes in response to the pandemic is much lower across all four nations than those being implemented in comparable countries.’

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