How does funding and support for schools and universities in the UK compare with the rest of the world?
Every year an international comparison of education in industrialised countries is published by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), providing a snapshot of trends.
The figures, picking out some distinguishing features, combine the education systems in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
From the age of three, there are very high levels of take-up for pre-school education and childcare in the UK, higher than almost any other developed country.
But, the OECD says, that poorer families are more likely to miss out – and that the UK is unusual in that so much of the cost of pre-school comes from parents, rather than the state or employers or business subsidies or the voluntary sector.
It’s one of only a handful of countries where more than 40% of the cost of pre-school is from private sources.
The UK pays the highest level of tuition fees in the industrialised world apart from the United States – driven by the cost of fees in England rather than other parts of the UK.
But, the OECD annual report says, much of this will not be repaid and that a “well-developed system of financial support” has allowed rising numbers of students to go to university.
By international standards, the UK has a high proportion of young people going to university, the OECD says.
The UK has seen a sharp fall in mature student numbers – and the average age for a graduate in the UK is now 23, the youngest in the OECD countries.
The proportion of students taking maths and science is high by international standards, but for engineering it is among the lowest.
Teachers are getting younger
The teaching workforce in the UK is among the youngest in the developed world and their starting salaries are below the OECD average.
In both England and Scotland, the report says, salaries for teachers fell in real terms between 2005 and 2017.
But the international comparison says that teachers’ pay in the UK can progress relatively rapidly and after 15 years teachers are likely to have moved above the OECD average.
The report also highlights the gap between head teachers and classroom teachers as being very wide by international standards, with heads in the UK among the highest paid in any OECD country.
There have been campaigns over school funding shortages – but the figures for 2015 show that per pupil spending, averaged out across the UK, is above the OECD average at both primary and secondary level.
The biggest difference, however, is at university level, where per student spending in the UK is significantly above the OECD average, most of which reflects the high level of fees.
The report shows that almost twice as much is spent per student at university level than is spent on pupils in either primary or secondary school.
Unqualified lose out in work
The report shows the strong link in the UK between education and employment – with graduates in the UK having among the lowest unemployment rates among OECD countries.
The UK’s labour market still has “severe” penalties for those with poor qualifications, particularly among the young. Women without qualifications are more likely than men to be out of the workforce.
Graduates on average earn 48% more than those who have got no further than getting five good GCSEs or the equivalent. And this premium is enough to ensure that going to university is still cost effective, despite the fees.
As well as higher earnings, the OECD says, the higher taxation paid by UK graduates “far outweighs the public cost of their education”.
But the study also highlights concerns about the mismatch between skills and jobs – quoting figures from 2012 showing that about a quarter of graduates could be over-qualified for their jobs.