BBC Question Time, factchecked

Published: 24 Feb 2017

Spending on schools up to 2020

“[Schools are] looking at facing an 8% cut”

Angela Rayner MP, 23 February 2017

“There’s record investment going into our schools.”

Justine Greening, 23 February 2017

School spending per pupil in England is likely to fall by around 8%, taking school-specific inflation into account, between 2014/15 and 2019/20. That’s according to both the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Audit Office.

You can look at the budget in a number of ways. As we’ve discussed before, you can look at the actual cash that’s being spent on schools, the value of that cash after taking inflation into account, and how it divides down per pupil. Prices and pupil numbers are both rising, so these both create pressures on the funding that’s needed.

The schools budget is set to rise in cash terms from about £40 billion in 2015/16 to nearly £43 billion in 2019/20, a record level. That’s also a rise when you take expected inflation into account.

But once you factor in rising pupil numbers as well, the budget per pupil is set to fall.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, “this will be the first time since the mid-1990s that school spending has fallen in real terms”.

Do poor grammar schools pupils make twice as much progress?

“When you look at disadvantaged children who go to grammars their progress is twice as fast in a grammar school as their better off peers.”

Justine Greening, 23 February 2017

This is correct, based on one study from 2004.

The government’s Education White Paper expresses this more cautiously:

“Some studies have found that selective schools can be particularly beneficial for pupils on lower incomes who attend them. For example, one study reported that the educational gain from attending a grammar school is around twice as high for pupils eligible for free schools meals, compared to the overall impact across all pupils.”

The “one study” referred to was first published by academics at the University of Bristol in 2004, and updated in 2006. It shows that poor children at grammars gain “around seven to eight grade points” between the ages of 11 and 16, whereas their peers improve by three to five points.

The authors confirmed to us that Ms Greening’s statement is defensible on the basis of their work, which the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology described recently as “robust”.

It’s consistent with the fact that the gap in GCSE results between poor children and their peers is far smaller at grammar schools than non-selective schools. But some have said this could be mostly down to the higher attainment of the type of children who go to grammar schools.

The authors of the 2004 study also stressed to us that the benefits for children at grammars come with a negative effect on educational equality more generally. Their paper also found that children who don’t make it into grammar school do worse—and, crucially, very few poor children are among those who do make the grade at age 11. That’s in line with what we’ve found before from looking at other research.

The government often stresses that these findings apply to the grammar school system as it exists now. Any expansion of selective education would, it says, be different.

Most, but not all, free schools help meet demand for school places

“There is evidence that certain free schools are being opened in areas that do not need them, and my view is that there should be equality, that money should be spread right across the system to give every child a good school in the area where he lives.”

BBC Question Time audience member, 23 February 2017

“With respect, sir, shouldn't we leave it to the parents of the children to decide if those free schools are needed because by definition you can't open a free school unless there is a need for it.”

Douglas Carswell, 23 February 2017

To set up a free school in England you need to show that there’s support from parents, and either a basic shortage of places or a lack of good school places in the area.

So in one sense Mr Carswell is right. The fact that a free school has been approved implies that there’s bottom-up demand and the Department for Education has agreed there’s a need.

But that ‘need’ isn’t always a basic need for more places.

It is much of the time. 83% of free schools since 2013 were started in areas that didn’t have enough school places, according to the Department for Education.

But not all of them were. As the National Audit Office point out, 46 secondary free schools (21% of the total) are in council areas which haven’t needed more places overall since 2009/10, and won’t need more up to 2019/20.

Free schools can also be approved if the standard of local schools is poor, judged either in terms of poor Ofsted ratings or pupil performance.

Half of new places in mainstream free schools opening between 2015 and 2021 will help meet a shortage in the area, according to estimates from the Department for Education. It expects the other half to create spare capacity in the local schools system.

And that’s part of the plan. One idea behind the Free Schools Programme is that giving parents more choice increases competition between schools and drives up standards overall. If new free schools prove more popular with parents then they’ll draw away pupils from other schools, and those pupils take government funding with them.

For now, too few free schools have been running long enough to say whether this works in practice, according to the National Audit Office. There isn’t enough data to say whether free schools push standards in other local schools up or down.

The UK's international education ranking

“We are 15th in the international educational league tables. We are behind Vietnam.”

Isabel Oakeshott, 23 February 2017

The UK ranked 15th for science in the latest round of international educational league tables—the PISA tests. Vietnam ranked 8th. This was the subject the most recent rankings for 2015 focused on.

The UK ranked 27th for maths, and 22nd for reading.

But we’re not necessarily as far behind Vietnam in science as this might suggest.

PISA tests the performance of 15 year olds in science, reading, and maths every three years using “real life” scenarios.

It’s important not to read too much into the UK’s rank alone, or draw conclusions from changes in our rankings about whether our education system is getting better or worse.

One reason is because the scores for each economy/country are based on a sample of pupils in each area, so they’re only estimates. One country could rank 10th and another 20th, but the difference between their scores might not be significant enough for us to be certain the higher ranked one actually performed better than the lower ranked one.

For 2015, there were five countries above us in the rankings with scores that were actually not significantly different from ours.

Vietnam did score statistically significantly higher than us—we can be pretty certain that they performed better. It also had a much smaller gap between the performance of high and low achievers than we did.

Compared to the average for developed countries, 15 year olds in the UK performed above average for science and reading, and around the average for those countries in maths.

Overall, our own performance across science, reading and maths hasn’t changed much since 2006.

We’ve written before about the other pitfalls of reading into changes to our rankings, and how PISA data alone doesn't tell us why some countries and economies are higher achieving.

You can find out more about England’s performance in the PISA tests in this analysis by academics at the UCL Institute of Education, and of how the four nations of the UK compare in this analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

PISA isn’t the only set of international educational tests worldwide. There’s also the TIMSS tests.


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