A measure of myopia

April 12, 2002

The facts and figures make it clear that investment in education is now imperative, argues Francis Green

In a break with tradition, chancellor Gordon Brown has announced in advance of the budget that there will be substantial new tax breaks for companies, costing the Exchequer £600 million or more a year, "to promote enterprise and investment and to raise our country's productivity". Why is it that successive governments are unwilling to treat higher spending on education in the same way, as an investment with a future pay-off?

Measured against the other industrialised countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United Kingdom is near the bottom of the tables for literacy, numeracy and levels of school-leaving qualifications.

What is more, our relative position is getting worse as the rate at which the younger generation is improving on the academic qualifications of their parents is rising faster in most other industrialised countries. And this is happening when the demand for education is stronger than ever.

One response to this dilemma has been a fivefold increase in resources going into private education between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, although the proportion of pupils educated in this way has remained steady. The result? As many as 60 per cent of private-school alumni aged 25 to 44 in work have a degree, compared with only 16 per cent of those from state schools.

Public spending on state education is, however, at 4.8 per cent of GDP (2000-01), way below the 6.4 per cent recorded under a previous Labour government in 1974-75. Figures published last year indicate that spending per primary school child is $1,6 (£890) less in the UK than the OECD average, $828 less per secondary school pupil and $117 less per tertiary-level student.

Our underresourced state education sector has faced a continuous demand for higher educational standards and greater efficiency and much has been achieved in terms of producing rising numbers of better-qualified school-leavers and many more university graduates.

But all this has been at a high and unsustainable cost. The consequences in terms of lowered morale of schoolteachers and university lecturers between 1992 and today are clearly measurable. In 1992 only 10 per cent of teachers and lecturers thought that they had to "work at high speed all or most of the time", compared with 18 per cent for other occupations.

By the end of the decade this position was reversed (33 per cent vs 25 per cent), with teachers and lecturers experiencing a hefty rise in stress. Over the same period, the proportion of teachers who were "dissatisfied with their job" more than doubled from 6 to 13 per cent, while the proportion who thought that their job "requires me to work very hard" rose from a half to nearly three-quarters.

Falling job satisfaction and rising workloads are intimately related, but the blow to morale is reinforced by the continuing decline in relative pay, part of a longer-term trend. The relative pay of teachers and lecturers has declined dramatically over the past ten years - from 60 per cent above national average pay in 1992 to 33 per cent above average pay today. In this light, the problems in the recruitment of teachers and lecturers are no great mystery.

If the rise in educational standards in Britain that the government, employers and the public all say they want is to continue, let alone if our relative decline in comparison with other industrial countries is to be stopped, then there will have to be political agreement to raise substantially the level of resources devoted to education to match that in our competitor countries.

Politicians and taxpayers will have to accept that the "education industry" has been stretched to such an extent over the past decades that it is pointless to expect further rounds of major labour productivity improvements from teachers and lecturers. The hope that the required expansion and continued improvement in state education can be funded by greater "efficiencies" alone is wishful thinking.

Francis Green is an associate of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and professor of economics at the University of Kent.

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