The cost of smaller class sizes

This was written a while ago (but not posted) when £30k per annum independent schools were being held up as beacons for state schools to emulate.

Whilst there is such inequity of funding between independent schools on the one hand, and state maintained schools on the other, comparing outputs will always also carry an element of inequity. Saying this is not making excuses. If the school down the road is getting £7,000 per student and I am getting £6,500 then that’s not good, but its not the end of the world. If, however, the school down the road is getting £30,000 per student then I would suggest it is not unreasonable for me to say its perhaps a little unfair to be asked to match their output. Saying this does not make me an enemy of anything. It is, as the great man once said, a “statement of the bleeding obvious”.

There are, I know, independent schools who get good results on a similar level of funding per child as maintained schools, but this is often at the cost of a narrowing of the curriculum. It’s basic maths. To get the class sizes most independent schools enjoy you either have to have more cash or less variety. And class-size does matter. Obviously reducing from 30 to 28 students is not going to have a massive impact, but reducing from 30 to 15 is. This is what happens in many independent schools and it is one of the benefits they sell to parents. Of course, this could never happen in state maintained schools so they have to look to different ways of achieving great outcomes.

Well, I say it could never happen, but what would really be the cost?

Let’s look just at secondary. To make the maths easier, lets call it 3000 secondary school. Two main things have to happen to halve the student teacher ratio. There has to be an increase in the number of teachers, and an increase in the number of classrooms. This is a rough and ready piece of accounting guesswork to understand the scale of the problem, if you want to pick holes in the numbers please feel free.

I don’t know how many classrooms would be required, but I expect the cost for each school might be on the scale of £10,000,000 on average. There are of course immense problems with this as whilst many schools will have space to build these rooms, many (particularly in cities) won’t. But this is not a detailed plan, more a thought exercise. So, with 3000 schools this is going to cost somewhere in the order of £30,000,000,000. For those of you who struggle with maths thats £30 billion. Or just over half the current annual education budget. Now thats unlikely to get the go-ahead. Unless you start thinking like a business. A business would amortise such capital spend over 50 years, making a more reasonable figure of “just” £600 million a year. Lets call a billion a year, just to allow the PFI chappies to make something from it as well. That sounds more doable.

Now for the teachers. Again, not sure about exact numbers, but lets take a guess at an extra 50 per school. Working from figures of cost per teacher on the DfE performance table pages this comes to around £5.25 billion a year. There are also going to be extra annual maintenance costs and the I suppose these new rooms will need lighting and stuff, so lets call a round £6 billion a year.

Thats a total annual additional cost of £7 billion on the education budget. That doesn’t sound too bad to me, considering the benefits it would bring. I’m sure the DfE stats people could run up an impact statement proving that the net present value of the expenditure was an additional £X billion on GDP and we could get going on the plan. Plus there are spin-offs. All the extra building work over the ten years it will take could have a real impact on growth (not forgetting to offset the savings in benefits off the costs of course), and we’ll need an extra 150,000 teachers.

But, realistically, this is not going to happen. Mainly because our political leaders these days can’t see beyond the end of the next news cycle whereas this plan only has effect over a generation. Any increase in funding (remember those days) is usually marginal rather than transformative and gets soaked up without this kind of structural change.

So if this is not going to happen why bother blogging about it? Two reasons. Firstly, as I said earlier, its a thought exercise. What would it cost? Could it ever happen? And secondly, to make this suggestion.

It may not be affordable to do this across the entire school, but why could we not do it for some areas of the curriculum. What would it cost to teach, say, Maths and English in classes of 15? Rough guess – £6 billion capital spend and a little over an extra £1 billion a year revenue.

That’s doable, surely.

I’ll leave others to argue over which subjects.