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Education spending in the UK

Published Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Education spending peaked in around 2010 at 5.7% of GDP or £104 billion (2018-19 prices). It has fallen since then, but how much of this is due to changes to definitions, where does this leave the UK compared to other countries and how does this fall in spending compare to others over the past seven decades?

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Since 1979...

The real level of public spending on education in the UK was static in the early 1980s. It increased gradually from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s before falling slightly in 1995-96 and 1996‑97. After then it increased to new record levels in each year to the peak in 2010-11. The Government has removed spending on the subsidy element of student loans from data from 2011-12 onwards. Despite this break in the series there was a clear decline in spending in the five years from 2012-13 onwards.

When expressed as a proportion of GDP, education spending peaked in 2009-10 and 2010-11 at around 5.7%, its highest since the mid-1970s. The subsequent decline has taken it down to 4.2%.

Since 1950...

Public expenditure on education increased as a proportion of GDP throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. It peaked at 5.8% in 1975-76 before declining for the rest of the decade and much of the 1980s. It briefly increased in the early 1990s before falling back to a recent low of 3.9% in the late 1990s. From the late 1990s it increased in each of the next 12 years to 5.5% in 2010-11. A break in the series in 2011-12 limits the comparisons with later years, however, it is clear than education spending has fallen as a % of GDP in each year from 2011-12 to 2017‑18. This was the longest continuous period of decline in this measure for the period covered here. There was a small increase in 2018-19, the first since 2009-10

By level…

Almost 80% of education spending went on schools -primary and secondary education. The relatively low share going on tertiary (higher) education reflects the fact that the data exclude the subsidy element of student loans which forms the majority of higher education spending in England.

Within the UK…

Public spending per head on education in 2017-18 was highest in Scotland at around £1,550, followed by £1,490 in London and £1,440 in Northern Ireland. It was lowest in the South East and South West of England at around £1,200.

If spending on loans was added back in…

Spending still fell in real terms and as a percentage of GDP after 2010, but by a smaller amount than official figures (currently) show. Real spending levels have stabilised or increased slightly in the past few years.

Compared to other countries…

OECD analysis puts UK public spending on education at 4.2% of GDP in 2016. This was 12th highest out of the 34 OECD members with data on this measure and higher than the OECD average of 4.0%. If private expenditure on education is included then the UK’s total spending on education in 2016 was 6.2% of GDP, Only Norway (6.5%), New Zealand (6.4%) and Chile (6.3%) had higher figures.


This paper looks at trends in public sector education expenditure in the UK. Some more detail can be found in Public expenditure statistical analysis 2018 including a breakdown of total expenditure by type of education and spending in total and per head in the different parts of the UK. The annual report and accounts of the Department for Education includes more technical detail of spending in the most recent year and, in appendices, plans to the end of the current spending review period. Chapter B of the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2018 compares education spending across OECD and other countries.

The briefing paper Higher education funding in England looks in detail at spending on higher education in England. The Department for Education publishes a wide range of data and analysis on school funding and expenditure in England under different headings. The most useful can be found at: Statistics: local authority/school finance data, School and college funding and finance and Section 251 documents

Commons Briefing papers SN01078

Author: Paul Bolton

Topics: Further education, Higher education, Public expenditure, Schools

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