Tag Archives: secondary

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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Let’s Stop the Blame Game

Transition is a bit of a bugbear of mine. It is frequently problematic, recognised as such, and yet rarely tackled. Every few weeks on Twitter someone somewhere will post some claim or reference to the inaccuracy of Key Stage 2 test results. I – and often a few others – will step in and point out that there are possible reasons for discrepancies other than the implied cheating or similar, and then someone else will claim that National Curriculum levels are the problem, and that they just aren’t the same in primary and secondary schools.

This is nonsense. Levels are broad, they have flaws, and are only roughly estimated by test results, but they are unquestionably the same.

That said, it is clear that there is an issue with discrepancies between levels that are awarded at the end of Key Stage 2, and those which are perceived by secondary teachers in the early weeks of Year 7. It’s quite possible, of course, that in some cases that is down to either error or more scurrilous method in the last weeks of primary education, but that’s quite a conclusion to leap to. So what other explanation?

I spent the last 7 years teaching Year 7 in a middle school, where the primary teachers shared the staffroom, corridors and playground duties with the KS3 staff. There is no room there for cheating which will be picked up in a neighbouring classroom. Yet still each Autumn I would see work in books which did not always reflect the National Curriculum level on the spreadsheets – and the reasons were varied. For example,

  1. George is a case in point. He came to me with a Level 5 in Writing, and yet I saw no evidence of it in his written work. Pieces were often brief, poorly-constructed and lacked detail. The obvious conclusion would have been to presume that he had never been working at Level 5. Except I knew the person who had awarded it, and had every faith in their professional judgement.
    The reality was that George was coasting. He’d been driven to succeed in the KS2 assessments (he’s happy to pull the rabbit out of the hat on cue) and had taken his foot off the pedal. Of course, a conversation with his Year 6 teacher soon put me straight, and in turn we were able to put him back on track. I was able to show him his KS2 Writing test paper and explain that I expected similar quality from him from then on.
  2. In my first year at a new school, I had a girl in my top maths set who seemed to struggle. The sets had been organised by raw test score and she had scored well in KS2, yet was struggling to keep up with others in her set. A quick check of the teacher assessment data showed that her secure Level 5 on the test did not match the teacher assessment of high 4. She’d got lucky in May, and was paying for it now by being in the wrong set. She moved, made good progress, and was working comfortably at the top of level 5 by the time she moved to Y8. Her test score had been “wrong”; the teacher assessment was right.
  3. Harry came to me marked as a L3 reader, yet he seemed much stronger. By the second week of term, I was already querying his low level. In fact, it was a simple case of an error when moving rows about on Excel. The error was entirely mine, but the inaccuracy could easily have been blamed elsewhere, and then ignored.

But these are anomalous examples, one might argue. The reality is that kids are boosted to reach the levels of the tests and then fall back because they do no work after them until September. And there may be some truth in that. The problem, though, comes when we presume that forgotten knowledge is the same as un-met knowledge. There is a great risk that taking benchmarking assessments at the start of Year 7 as ‘gospel’ runs the risk of setting too low a starting point for many children.

Aside from the massive social and cultural impacts of starting secondary school (and these are surely undeniable), the simple use of a test in the early weeks of a new term, let alone a new school, is likely to be an unreliable marker of future success. Sure, it will help to bolster the apparent progress figures, but that isn’t the same as achieving progress.

If I were asked to sit an A-level French exam this week, without warning, I would probably struggle. I may not do better than the average newcomer to A-level French. But that doesn’t mean that my two years of learning have been eradicated. Some it will be lost and will need re-teaching, but a great deal more will come back with prompting. Just because the knowledge isn ‘t there at the starting gun, doesn’t mean it all needs to be taught from scratch.

September assessments are simply not that accurate, it seems. I worked closely with the data manager at one of our receiving high schools and looked at their teacher assessments for September and February of the first academic year they had our students. In the September assessments more than half were assessed at the same level, or above, as our final assessment – but nearly half were assessed at a sub-level or more below. The variation was on average in excess of a whole level (6.2 APS points). It made it seem that our data could have been plucked at random. One child – Sally – had been awarded 6C in Reading by us, and was levelled at 3B by the high school; Similarly, Tom, whom I’d awarded 4C, had been assessed at 5A. The discrepancies were bountiful.

But the February data told a very different story. After 6 months in the school, the average discrepancy between our June assessments and their February assessments was just 3 APS points. Only two children had been assessed as working at a lower level than their final level with us (one of whom, oddly, had been given identical levels in June and September!). The remainder had made an average of just over 1 sub-level of progress – much as you might expect part way through a successful year. The two extreme cases I mentioned above had been clear outliers, and were soon back to within a sub-level of the June assessments we had made.

The September data had – to me, who knew the children well – seemed erratic and confusing. To the secondary teachers who had known the children no more than an hour or two, and were forced to base their assessments on single examples of work, they were virtually meaningless. The February results looked recognisable to me, and more accurate to them.

I could, then, try to argue that it is secondary teachers who are wilfully under-assessing in September to make their results look good. The reality, I rather suspect, is very different. Teachers were forced to assess based on limited knowledge, and so, inevitably, accuracy suffered. Yet it is quite likely that some of those same teachers will have made comments about primary school data reliability on seeing their September data.

The implications could, of course, be significant. Take Sally, the child who had been awarded 6C by us, but mid level 3 by the high school. Had they taken that baseline as accurate, regardless of our information, they might have expected her to struggle at GCSE. Their February assessment of 6B showed that this clearly wasn’t to be the case, but the risks were there all the same. Setting decisions based on rushed assessments in September could have been catastrophic for her. But equally, there might have been many more students with smaller errors, but mis-assessed all the same, whose progress was then held back by that initial low expectation.

It’s interesting to note that whenever the complaints arise on Twitter and elsewhere, it is always the children who seem to have “over-performed” at KS2 who are mentioned; how many like Tom get simply forgotten because the data seems more favourable? The blame game might be less dangerous if we always presumed that the higher result were more accurate, but I suspect that that is rarely the case.

Of course, what makes the system different within my own school is that we talk to each other across the key stage boundary. If I see an anomalous result, or a child who appears not to be working at the expected level, then I would think it only normal to speak to the previous class teacher. If only the same happened more frequently between schools.

The challenges of transition are manifold. But let’s not just presume that the difficulties are all caused by those on the other side of the divide; reality is not quite like that.

Dear Secondary school teacher…

Dear Secondary school teacher,

Hello, I know you don’t really know me, but I was the primary school teacher who spent  a year of my life helping to get those first-years ready to come to you. I know… I didn’t do a perfect job, did I? That pains me more than it does you, believe me. For every 90 minutes you spend having to struggle with Ethan, remember I probably spent nearer 1000. Maybe if you’d seen how he was doing a year ago, you might feel differently? I know I did! You have no idea how proud I was of what he and I achieved last year, nor how scared I was about sending him off unguarded into your territory. I hope that his fears were as unfounded as I promised him they were.

But that’s not why I’m writing. Every cohort will have its Ethans, and I’m sure that this time last year I was tearing my hair out, too, wondering what had been happening over the past few years for him along with others. Such is life.

I am a bit concerned, though, to hear that you’ve re-tested every student we sent to you. You see, it just seems such a great demand on your time – after all, you could have been using that time to get to know those kids, and to start teaching them, and I’m sure you’d rather have been planning exciting lessons than marking tests, wouldn’t you? It seems a shame for the kids, too. I’ve spent a year telling them about the opportunities that secondary school has to offer, and the options that will be open to them. And your colleagues gleefully came to tell them all about the hour-after-hour of excitement and engagement that you were going to offer them, so it seems a bit harsh to bombard them with assessments in week one.

Rumour has it that you feel you have to do it. After all, Ofsted are breathing down your neck and you’ve got to demonstrate progress. But no-one has explained to me yet what the baseline testing is meant to achieve. After all, Ofsted will look at the KS2 data whether you like it or not, won’t they? So, I’m not sure what the rush to test is for?

Perhaps you’re worried that our results aren’t reliable. Well, to be honest, so am I! I’ve seen the quality of marking sometimes, but we’ve also tackled it where necessary. And it’s true, there are a couple of results that raised eyebrows with me when they arrived too. I never thought Callum would achieve Level 5 in Reading, but that test paper all about Pokémon rather played into his hands. But then, I did explain that to the Head of Year who came down to meet me. Did those notes ever reach you? I must admit, she didn’t seem to note much down as I was explaining, but I did give her my detailed information about each of them so if you take a look at Callum’s you’ll see it there. I also explained to her that we were disappointed that no-one from your English department was available to support our moderation of Level 5 and 6 writing. We did draft someone else in eventually, but hopefully next year, eh? It’d be good to finally get that transition programme you keep mentioning on the open evenings really underway, wouldn’t it?

While I think of it – did you sort out that problem with Anna? Her mum explained to me the confusion the other day. Again, I did tell the Head of Year who came in about her absence during the tests, but I suppose it’s understandable that a missing score gets counted as a zero on your system. Hopefully you’ve managed to pull her out of the SEN maths set and put her up in the G&T group where she belongs. Mrs Carter said she only noticed it when you sent home her targets and said she was on track for a grade D. It seemed a bit odd since she’d got enough marks in the Level 6 test to get that, if it hadn’t been for the wretched broken leg that morning.

Well, as ever, like I’ve said to every member of staff who’s ever deigned to speak to me from your place: if you ever want any background information on any of the children we’ve sent to you, I’m always at the end of the phone, or you can drop me an email. Or I’d still be happy to come up, like I said. I suppose it’s hard to imagine being prepared to do that when you only see them for a few hours a week, but do remember, they were my focus five days a week last year. I know them inside out and miss them hugely. I’d be only too happy to help you in moving them on as quickly as you can.

After all, I suppose really, we’re all working towards the same thing.
Aren’t we?

Best wishes
Michael