It aint necessarily so –data is in short supply


What is the relationship between school resourcing and student attainment and outcomes? Surely if you improve schools resource inputs student outcomes will   inevitably improve?  Politicians, and probably most parents, believe that expenditure is causally and positively related to student outcomes. So what does the evidence show?

Well, much of the evidence is equivocal. And the relationship between extra expenditure and improved outcomes is undoubtedly complex. There is a large and controversial literature analysing the relationship between school resourcing levels and pupil achievement, dating back to the pioneering work by Coleman et al. (1966). Much of the US evidence suggests a weak and somewhat inconsistent relationship between school resources and pupil achievement. (Burtless,1996; Hanushek, 1997).  However, this view has been disputed by some, including Lane et al. (1996) and Krueger (2003).   To get a bit technical, if you are examining the causal relationship between school resources and student outcomes   you are focusing on what is called ‘ education  production  function  research’  which   relates  student  outcomes  to  school resources,  school  context  and  student  input  variables. The problem though is that in the UK we have very little data on this from which to draw any firm conclusions. Crucial to this research are high-quality data sets which seem to be in short supply. The US studies are informative but the way education resources are allocated here in the UK are very different from the way they are  allocated  in the States.  The fact that LEAs have historically enjoyed some discretion, quite a lot in fact,  over how they  spend the  education grant they receive from central government presents a   problem in any analysis of the influence  of educational expenditure on pupil achievement. LEAs spend money in different ways according to different priorities.

So there is a big challenge in the methodology. One Bristol University study  ‘The Impact of School Resources on Student Attainment: A Multilevel Simultaneous Equation Modelling Approach’ identifies a  major methodological difficult- the problem of the endogeneity of school resources due to the non-random way in which  funds are allocated across schools.  In the UK, schools with higher concentrations of lower attaining students receive more funding per student.  If this feature of resource allocation is ignored, a true positive effect of increasing resources will be understated.  In addition, there may be unobserved characteristics of schools, and also of local education authorities (LEAs), which influence both resource allocation and student attainment.’  For example, one factor in  the funding allocation formula used by LEAs is  the proportion of socially disadvantaged  students in a school, which is also associated  with student outcomes.  In the absence of adequate controls for social background, a true positive resource effect will be diluted or may  even appear negative.’

The Bristol study came to some interesting conclusions.

‘Firstly, additional resources do have a   positive impact on attainment in mathematics and science, but not for English. These positive resource effects are particularly strong  once we account for the endogeneity of school  resources, i.e. once we allow for the fact that in the UK education system more resources are  systematically allocated to LEAs and schools that have lower attaining pupils. From a policy perspective, this suggests that better funded schools, and those with lower pupil-teacher ratios, have higher pupil attainment ceteris paribus than schools with lower levels of resources. The magnitude of the effects suggests that policies to reduce pupil-teacher ratios in secondary schools may be particularly effective, but again only for improving pupil attainment in science and mathematics. Comfortingly, from a policy perspective, this suggests that schools do use resources efficiently, at least to some extent, in that we find a systematic positive relationship between resource inputs and pupil outcomes for science and mathematics. However, we find insignificant or even negative resource effects for English. In  other words, we find no evidence that schools and LEAs that have higher levels of  expenditure per pupil and lower pupil-teacher ratios have better pupil attainment in English. This might imply that schools are not efficient in their use of resources in English. However,  an alternative possibility is that family  background and home environment plays a more important role in determining attainment in English, and that we are unable to fully model  this process in our data’

So research has come up with decidedly mixed results. What matters most about resources self-evidently  is how you spend them.  A recent Guide for Free schools published by CFBT Education Trust ‘Making the Most of Free Schools Freedoms’ 2011  said that  ‘There is no direct link between spending on schools and outcomes for pupils. Rather as one might expect, the research shows that what is important is the way the money is spent. Which is true. The Sutton Trust in a recent report agrees with the fact that research sends out mixed messages and conceded that it is a  challenge to ensure extra resources are spent effectively.

You can for example invest heavily in reducing class size which is an expensive undertaking. That may serve to improve outcomes (more at Primary level than Secondary it seems) But if you have a poor teacher teaching a class of fifteen and an outstanding teacher teaching a class of thirty there is  a  pretty good chance that the  student outcomes will be much  better in the larger class. And because reducing class size is so expensive there may be more cost effective ways of improving outputs by, for example, better targeted professional development support for weak teachers.  That some resources are wasted in education is beyond doubt and it remains the case that over the period of the last Government when significant resources were invested in education and schools, productivity as measured by the ONS, was the same in 2008 as it was in 1996  and  in the period 2000-2005 when most of the new resources were being invested , productivity   in education actually fell by 6.8%. (despite the best efforts of Michael Barber and the Delivery unit)

The only answer is to be very careful how you spend your money, ensuring that what you do is informed by high quality evidence and  that you evaluate  the returns  you are getting throughout the programme of investment, rather than just at the end. And at the end of the day its what happens at the sharp end, in the classroom,  that really matters. Good teachers will raise performance, bad teachers wont.

Sources;Hanushek, E. A. (1997). Assessing the effects of school resources on student performance: an  update. Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis 19 (2), 141-164.


Researching the Links between School Resources and Student Outcomes in the UK: A Review of Issues and Evidence ROSALIND LEVACIC   & ANNA VIGNOLES;2002



‘The Impact of School Resources on Student Attainment: A Multilevel Simultaneous Equation Modelling Approach’. Bristol University


The Sutton Trust (2011) Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning; Summary for Schools Spending the Pupil Premium


Making the Most of Free School Freedoms-CFBT Education Trust 2011



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