Saturday, February 25, 2006

Costs Of Failing Schools

Following our blog on headteachers, I've been taking a further look at the NAO report Improving poorly performing schools in England.

You will recall this shocking finding:

"As at July 2005, there were 1,557 poorly performing schools in England, which represented around 4 per cent of primary schools and 23 per cent of secondary schools. These 1,557 schools educate around 980,000 pupils, or 13 per cent of the school population."

Clearly it is an outrage that so many of our children will never achieve their full potential simply because failing state schools deny them a proper education. But setting that on one side, what is this failure costing us taxpayers?

To start with, there's the basic cost of the failing schools themselves. In 2004-05, English schools received £25bn, so 13% is £3.25bn.

Then there's the cost of all the special measures directed at these schools in an attempt to stop them failing. According to the NAO, in 2004-05 that amounted to another £837m.

Then there's the government's academy programme, which replaces failing schools with flashy new Norman Foster corporate HQ, academies. In 2004-05, that cost another £160m in development costs alone.

So the costs highlighted by the NAO total £4.25bn. In one year alone.

Bad enough you might think, but it doesn't stop there. For one thing, it seems those costly "special measures" often don't work. The NAO report notes: "40 per cent of schools that recovered [from special measures] in the mid‑1990s have since closed, and about 5 per cent of more recently recovered schools closed soon after recovery." And even those flashy academies look shaky: "it is too early to be clear on whether the programme will be good value for money. There have been difficulties at some academies (in particular, the Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough is in Special Measures)." The Unity Academy only opened in 2002.

Then there's the cost of trying to rectify the damage once these failed kids have left their failing schools. Many studies have shown that perhaps a quarter of the population have very poor literacy and numeracy that, among other things, limits their employability.

Which is increasingly cited by the government as the principle reason for spending another £9bn pa for further education colleges to teach "skills". As we've blogged before, these are often not "skills" in the sense of learning plumbing or hairdressing They're much more basic skills, like the 3Rs, that should have been taught at school years before. Cost of this rectification work (which often fails because it is too late)? Let's be conservative and say it's only half the "Skills" budget. Equals £4.5bn pa.

So we've now reached a running total of £8.75bn. Annually.

And frankly, we haven't really even started. What about the loss of future tax revenue flowing from the inability of these millions of failed pupils to earn to their full potential? What about the additional costs of welfare provision?

Once again, top-down state provision is both costing us a fortune AND failing the vulnerable group it's meant to help.

As a matter of urgency the government should abandon its costly schools patch-up programme. Instead it should encourage more private provision by offering parents with children at failing schools a voucher to move to a school of their choice. Just like they're doing so successfully in Milwaukee and elsewhere.

Neither we taxpayers nor the failed kids can afford to go on like this.

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