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We know the price of beer and a pint of milk. Why not the cost of educating a child?

Posted on: 2018-11-20 06:45:00

Babies in hospital nursery
Four years before children get to school we know how many are on the way and can work out the minimum sum required to educate them. Photograph: Alamy

Margaret Thatcher famously knew the price of milk. David Cameron had crib sheets showing the cost of beer in Sheffield and London. But does any politician know the price of a primary or secondary education?

School budgets are squeezed, with some headteachers so cash-strapped they have taken to closing at Friday lunchtime to help balance the books. Others have protested on the streets of London.

Yet the underlying problem is that no one knows how much the schools system needs. In the past five years I’ve sat in umpteen dinners with MPs and philanthropists who loudly proclaim that the public purse simply can’t stand an ever-increasing budget for schools. “It’s just too expensive,” they say, “it must be possible to run schools more efficiently.” What no one says out loud is that to them, efficiently really means more cheaply, which translates into fewer teachers, on lower pay, with fewer resources.

When Philip Hammond insulted the entire teaching profession by offering £400m for “little extras” in the budget – a lower amount than was given to potholes – it was fair enough for Labour to complain. But how much more ought he to have provided and what would it buy? The teacher unions are pushing for an injection of at least £2bn, but that figure appears to be cited on the basis of no more than that it would take schools back to 2015 funding levels. Why is that the bar? If more money is needed, a positive case should be made for what it will be spent on and why. “It’s what we did in the past,” is lazy politics.

Now, the Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who also leads parliament’s education committee, has broken ranks and called on the government to stop the uncertainty and create a 10-year funding plan for education. After all, if the NHS can do it, why can’t schools?

Four years before children get to school, we already know how many are on the way and, once in, they stay for more than a decade. We can roughly predict where they will live and how many teachers they will need. Given that 80% of a school’s budget is staffing costs, we can get close to the minimum cash amount needed.

The remaining 20% of costs is trickier to figure out. School buildings vary in complexity and expense. Rural schools are costly. Special educational needs funding is particularly complex, with parents told their child is entitled to resources that, in reality, local authorities are not being given enough cash to cover.

Though it may be difficult to work out how much a school place ought to cost, it can’t be impossible, given that the country regularly manages it for higher education. Universities can charge £9,250 per student. The government sees this as the reasonable cost of educating an undergraduate. Should anyone point out that the figure seems high, given that schools educate children for at least six hours every weekday for around half that cost, the universities will quickly point to a plethora of other services they provide – mental health support, libraries, science equipment. Fair enough. But if it’s possible for universities to put a unified price on the delivery of “top quality service”, it must be possible for schools, too.

The Labour party should lean in to this problem and resist the temptation always simply to argue that more is better. Imagine if the nebulous promise of their National Education Service became a specific funding commitment of, say, £6,000 for every person, every year, between the age of five and 21. When a student is in school, or college, or university, or with a private training provider, the cash would be used to cover their course. If they don’t use the whole pot – perhaps they have a gap year or go into paid employment – the cash sits in their account, redeemable at a later point. To support lifelong learning, Labour could top up the accounts. A mid-career bonus at 45, perhaps? Another at retirement?

The £6,000 is illustrative, of course. The fact remains that we don’t actually know how much a good education costs in Britain. A pint of milk is about 50p. A beer in London costs £5.19. How should we figure out the real cost of a secondary school place? We need a price list. It’s time to get behind Halfon’s call.



Laura McInerney
Source: The Guardian

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