IFS study finds “remarkable” refocusing of education spending towards poorer pupils

New research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows a profound shift in the focus of education spending  away from affluent pupils toward the less well off since the 1980s.

In the 1980s, considerably more was spent on the education of those from well-off backgrounds than on those from poorer backgrounds but this is no longer the case.

The report finds “Changes to the distribution of school funding, increased staying-on rates and reforms to HE funding mean that there was no difference in the amount of public money spent in total on educating the poorest and richest pupils who were taking their GCSEs in 2010….since 2010, the funding system has become even more beneficial to lower-income students relative to the better off. This is in part because of further school funding reforms, in part because post-16 participation rates have risen and in part because funding for school sixth forms (where better-off children are more likely to study) has been cut relative to funding for colleges (which are more likely to serve poorer students)”.

It concludes by recognising, however, that this shift in spending has not been accompanied by a significant reduction in the attainment gap between disadvantaged and affluent pupils. The report cautions against assuming that the shift in funding has therefore been a failure:

“[T]he last 10 years have also seen a raft of changes to qualifications and assessments for pupils at ages 16 and 18. It is difficult to disentangle these from the underlying changes in the human capital and skills formed by pupils from different backgrounds. Indeed, the recent work on the effects of school resources has tended to downplay measures of educational attainment as useful indicators of human capital and instead focused on later -life earnings. It may therefore be a bit early to judge whether changes in education funding have been a success or not.”

Is funding actually reaching those that need it most?

Researchers have previously questioned whether school funding aimed at tackling disadvantage is targeted as well as it could be. For example, Professor Stephen Gorard uses the example of Middlesbrough and Kensington and Chelsea to point out that areas with similar levels of Pupil Premium eligible state educated pupils might well have very different levels of disadvantage in practice.

FSM group Middlesbrough Kensington and Chelsea
Never FSM 53 53
FSM previously 14 27
FSM now 33 19
Source: Stephen Gorard, Education Policy: Evidence of Equity and Effectiveness (2018)

Professor Becky Allen has suggested that Pupil Premium does not target the poorest students and that poverty is a poor proxy for educational disadvantage, arguing for the continuation of the policy in a modified form. Conversely, EEF Chief Executive Sir Kevan Collins recently wrote a column in the TES arguing that Pupil Premium is the best means of reaching disadvantaged pupils.

Read the full IFS report here.

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