Why is secondary education so expensive?

No teacher is ever happy about the amount of money spent on their school, but I was interested to see these figures shared by Guardian education editor Richard Adams today:

[tweet https://twitter.com/RichardA/status/530404555868348416 hide_thread=”true”]

It once again raised a question that I have long wondered about: why do we accept that secondary education costs so much more than primary?

I don’t have any more detail on the figures (yet), so it’s hard to know exactly what is being compared here. It could be a substantial difference in pupils numbers if comparing compulsory primary to compulsory secondary, particularly given the bulge in primary numbers at the moment, but either way it must almost certainly represent a greater number of primary school pupils for 75% of the cost of secondary.

Now, I’m not arguing that there should be no difference. I do recognise that there are some additional costs in resourcing secondary schooling, but are the costs really so much greater that the sector warrants an additional 33% or more spending?

When I queried this on Twitter, various possibilities where put forward, of varying degrees of justifiability to my mind, such as:

  • Exam boards costs
    This seems reasonable to me, although I cannot believe they account for much of the difference
  • Equipment (especially for practical subjects)
    Again, I agree to an extent. However, many of these costs are rarer spends, and are then spread across hundreds of pupils. Primary schools, on the other hand, often have to buy resources for relatively small numbers (and I challenge anyone to look at the costs of resources such as Numicon without their eyes watering)
  • Staffing
    This is the big one, understandably. And clearly secondary schools need more staff, but do they need so many more staff than a typical primary on a “per head” basis? And it’s true that they have larger staffs and so more leaders per school, but does that still hold per pupil? For example, one secondary head can often be responsible for 2000 students, a number that would commonly be shared between up to 10 primary heads. Similarly, an admin team might necessarily be larger for a large school, but are the costs necessarily higher than the equivalent admin support across 5-10 primaries? And if so – why?

It is true that small extra costs here and there soon add up, but what if the discrepancy hadn’t previously existed? Would so many secondary teachers have TLRs compared to primary colleagues?

Take for example a smallish 800-place secondary school without sixth form. It wouldn’t be uncommon for there to be a TLR for a Head of Year post – or perhaps someone on the Leadership scale, and perhaps even a deputy head of year on a TLR. Alongside this it would be normal to have Heads of department on a range of TLRs, and in many cases second in department and other roles.

Now take an equivalent size of primary school. Again, it might be common to have paid heads of year, although often on the lowest TLR. These same staff would be expected to take on curriculum leadership roles, too. And often on a far fuller timetable than their secondary colleagues.

Is that because such roles are inherently more costly in secondary schools, or just because the money is more easily available for it?

I genuinely don’t know the answers. There are almost certainly costs of secondary schools that I haven’t considered. There are probably some diseconomies of scale that counter some of the presumed economies. But can any of that really justify spending 33% more on secondary pupils than their primary counterparts?


I have deliberately avoided getting into the details of post-16 and pre-compulsory education. I recognise that there are greater costs involved at either end of the system, particularly on the literal number of staff required, but I’m not persuaded that those factors affect the bigger picture substantially.

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7 thoughts on “Why is secondary education so expensive?

  1. cazzypot2013 6 November 2014 at 6:55 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Richard Adams 6 November 2014 at 7:01 pm Reply

    Well that was fun. I should have added that HE accounts for another £15bn, and that government edu spending in total accounts for about 5.5% of GDP.

    The stats all come from this spreadsheet:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/371343/Tables_SR45_2014.xls

    The spreadsheet lives on this DfE web page, which has almost every detail you’d ever need about most things involving state education in the UK:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/education-and-training-statistics-for-the-uk-2014

  3. missmcinerney 9 November 2014 at 11:18 pm Reply

    Exam costs are enormous. Like, properly enormous.

    • Michael Tidd 9 November 2014 at 11:23 pm Reply

      Hundreds of pounds per student, presumably?
      But we’re talking about a difference of well over a £1000 per pupil on average. Maybe £7000 over the course of a secondary school career? That’s a lot!

      • Ian Lynch 10 November 2014 at 7:59 am Reply

        Exam costs are indeed high and there is good evidence that they can be reduced but the biggest costs are staffing and buildings and facilities management. Primary schools are mainly less per pupil because of class size and contact time.

  4. […] The release of funding information showed that secondary school funding continues to be massively higher than primary funding. More pre-election promises included the continuation of higher funding for […]

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