Many people believe you cannot put a price on education. They are wrong.

For each child doing their GCSEs in 2013, the taxpayer paid somewhere between £47,000 and £67,000 for their schooling, depending on where the child grew up.

This nugget of information is in Chris Belfield and Luke Sibieta’s masterful report, Long-run trends in school spending in England, published last
year by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, with a trove of other data placing current school finances into historical context.

In the 1970s, secondaries received £1.60 for every £1 that went to a primary. Now, their advantage is much lower

The document is particularly important given the recent announcement from the government spending watchdog that schools are facing the worst cuts in budgets since the 1990s. Education officials have argued this is an unfair comparison, as the cuts in the 90s were from a low base, whereas the current ones are from a historically high base.

Who is correct?

A graph in Belfield and Sibieta’s work shows that between 1970 and the mid-1990s education spending fluctuated at about £1,800 to £2,200 per primary child per year (when adjusted for inflation) and about £2,800 to £3,300 for secondary pupils. In the mid-1990s, secondaries in particular took a hit, but only dipping back towards about £3,000 per child.

By 2010, however, the average secondary child cost about £6,000 a year and primaries were edging towards £5,000.

The predicted falls are larger this time. Belfield and Sibieta’s projections knock the funding by about £500 per child per year. That’s more than the couple of hundreds lost in the 1990s.

But it is also fair for officials to say that the amount pumped in is now twice as high as it was 20 years ago, even when accounting for inflation.

This is not the most interesting part of the report, though.

What Belfield and Sibieta cleverly show is how the ratio of primary and secondary spending has changed over time. In the 1970s, secondaries received £1.60 for every £1 that went to a primary. Now, their advantage is much lower. Secondaries receive just £1.20 for every £1 in primaries.

In fact the imbalance is changing so rapidly that the cohort taking their GCSEs in 2020 will be the first in 30 years to have received more funding while in primary school than in secondary. This is important. As the authors explain: “This change could have significant implications for educational outcomes. It is widely hypothesised that public investments are more productive at earlier ages, but only if they are followed up with investments later in life too.”

Or, to put it more bluntly: giving cash to the little ones will only reap benefits if you don’t then shaft secondary schools as well.

Abundance doesn’t necessarily mean benefits are evenly split, as one curious finding highlights. Looking at schools with the most deprived intakes, Belfield and Sibieta found that about 10 per cent spent more than £9,000 per pupil. Yet another 10 per cent spent less than £6,200. “Some of these differences are readily explained by other features of the schools, but many are not,” they say. The reader is left ignorant as to the cause.

They end by noting that even when school budgets face shocks – as in the present climate – it is worth remembering that over the 12 years of a child’s education, these tend to flatten out.

For the adults dealing with budget crises, things feel fraught. But to the child in the classroom, they are likely to be just another weird adult-imposed dip that will come good somewhere along the line.