To transform schools, sack bad teachers and hire great ones. It'll transform education - and the economy

The future of Britain won't be decided in a battlefield. It will be decided in a classroom.

15 June 2013

9:00 AM

15 June 2013

9:00 AM

The Labour years can, in retrospect, be seen as a massive experiment into the link between cash and education. Gordon Brown almost doubled spending per pupil over the past decade, the biggest money injection in the history of state schooling. But as he did so, England hurtled down the international league tables. It now languishes in 18th place, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The plan didn’t work.

Only now is the full cost of that failure becoming clear. In an age when ‘work’ is increasingly something done with the head rather than the hands, education standards determine the wealth of nations. There is now enough data to draw a direct relationship between the two and put a price on it. Smarter nations are richer nations. Eric Hanushek, an academic at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, has pioneered a way of quantifying this and was commissioned by the OECD. His findings suggest that any politician looking for economic growth should start in the classroom.

Hanushek recently hit headlines by demonstrating how much richer America would be if its schools were at the top of the international league tables rather than languishing — with Britain’s — in the middle. ‘Relatively small improvements in students’ educational performance can have extraordinary impacts on a nation’s future economic well-being,’ he found. At the request of The Spectator, he has made similar calculations for Britain.


Professor Hanushek was struck by how Britain is now outclassed by so many of her former colonies, many of whom spend significantly less on education. He wanted to see how much wealthier we would be if our schools hadn’t fallen so far behind. His calculations, made together with Professor Ludger Woessmann from the University of Munich, imagine that catching up with Australia would add 0.4 points to our economic growth rate every year — far more than has been purchased by the debt-fuelled stimulus. It works out at £3.96 trillion over the lifetime of a child born today.

And this is, relatively speaking, the easy option. To reach Australian levels would require improving schools by no more than Poland managed in just six years. A more ambitious target would be Canada, which ranks fifth in the OECD league tables. Educating British children to Canadian standards, according to Hanushek and Woessmann, would mean economic growth of an extra 0.64 per cent each year. More importantly, the average worker could be paid 17 per cent more, because the economy would be far more productive.

And if Britain were to have school attainment as good as that of Hong Kong? Under the Hanushek/Woessmann tables, this would give us the fastest economic growth in the West and make the average pay packet 34 per cent larger. It sounds incredible — until you consider that Hong Kong, an island with no natural resources apart from the inventiveness of its people, is already richer than America on a per-capita basis.

If it were possible to buy better education, it would be the best investment that a government could make. But Professor Hanushek’s research shows that spending makes strikingly little difference. American school standards have been stagnant for 40 years in spite of more money and smaller classes. Recent research in Britain shows something similar: a recent study commissioned by the Department for Education found that there was no relationship between the wildly varying amounts of spending per pupil in state schools and the actual results.

What matters, according to Professor Hanushek’s research, is great teachers. ‘A good teacher can get 1.5 years of learning growth; a bad teacher gets half a year of learning growth.’ The difference between a good and bad teacher is one year of learning, every year. Having four consecutive years of high-quality teaching, he says, can eliminate any trace of economic disadvantage. ‘Family is not destiny’: studies show that, 20 years after leaving school, the pupils of great teachers are still doing markedly better in life.

The converse is also true. According to the research, poor teachers hinder the life chances of their pupils and inflict a wider cost on society. Teachers who are half as good as the average don’t cost half as much as the average — which is why education defies the laws of crude economics. Pumping money into the system is not, in itself, a solution. To start taking America’s schools to the top of the league table, Professor Hanushek says, the trick is to sack the least-effective 10 per cent of teachers and replace them with average teachers. Then the huge economic benefits he outlines would start to accrue. It’s an idea that could never be implemented in England. Some things are still too radical — even for a revolutionary like Michael Gove.

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Show comments
  • Ulysses Returns

    The best article I have ever read in The Spectator, and probably the most depressing. Knowing what needs to be done and not doing it, even when it would dramatically improve the futures of our children and our country, tells us all we need to know about our teachers and politicians. The teachers’ unions and labour have no shame. I don’t doubt that the excellent Mr Gove would make the changes if he had the support of Cameron but I assume that is a bridge to far for our insipid Prime Minister to cross.

    • Bob339

      Do not forget the wonderful parents – their consummate lack of skill has made the problems much worse.

      • jerym eedy

        Parents were also at school at some time.

        While they are sacking the bad teachers it would be a good idea to thin out the enormous bureaucracy that’s accumulated over the years.
        When I was at grammar school many, many years ago the admin staff consisted of a lady coming in for a couple of mornings a week to assist the headmaster who also occasionally took a class.
        Compare that with the situation in a six form college in which one of my sons now teaches where the administration staff is as great if not greater than actual teachers.

  • The Red Bladder

    Let’s start the ball rolling by sacking all the bad MPs. No? Thought not.

  • hitchslap11

    Sackable teachers are only part of the solution. Rewarding great teachers is another. School are getting more autonomy, that’s certainly progress. The final piece (for me) is vouchers. Hand a parent/guardian the equivalent of State spending per child in their age group (less 5% for efficiency). let them spend it at any school that will accept them as payment (state or private). If an private school accepts them as payment it must cover all of the teaching fees, no top ups allowed.

  • AdemAljo

    “I suggest we start gently by removing charitable status from private schools and ploughing the excess revenue into sink comprehensives.” – Telemachus, http://bit.ly/ZOUfpE

    You see, Telemachus?! You stupid bastard.

    Throwing money at schools doesn’t make them better. Changing the culture and the way in which we approach educating our children makes them better.

  • Remittance Man

    The problem isn’t how much is spent per pupil, but how it is spent. Gordon Brown, like so many people of the establishment, think in a typically socialist way – tractor production norms and so on. He thought that pounds per pupil was a direct indicator of how schools would perform and thus he dumped billions into the coffers of the DoS&E.

    The justification was that the state system needed to match the spending per pupil seen in the private sector. The problem was that he failed to recognise that the independent schools have one huge advantage – they are not beholden to the massive, cancer-like state apparat.

    Pretty much every penny raised by Eton, Marlborough and all the rest stays in those establishments getting spent on stuff the governors, who are mostly parents, choose. By contrast between 20 and 30% of what HMG spends on education never even gets to the schools; it gets absorbed by the DoE and its LEA chums. And what does get through is spent how the distant bureaucrats decide whether it is applicable or suitable for the school in question.

    If Britain truly wants an excellent education system it has to give all state schools the one real advantage the private sector schools have – their independence. Gove’s academies are a tiny step in the right direction, but they benefit just a miniscule fraction of the nation’s children, usually those of pushy middle class parents prepared to do the work to set one up. If he really wants to radically improve schooling for everyone he needs to take the next logical step and liberate all schools.

    Abolish the LEAs, radically reduce the size of the DoS&E and issue vouchers that can be cashed in by any school for the full value of a child’s education. Schools will then be free to compete by offering what they see as the best service they can to their pupils.

    • Daniel Maris

      Are you seriously saying that if we spent in the state sector per pupil per annum what Eton does (seems to be in the region of £35,000 to £40,000) we wouldn’t have better educational outcomes? Or do you just generate sentences like the following with no prior reflection: “The problem isn’t how much is spent per pupil, but how it is spent.”

  • Terry Field

    To make these changes, the education unions need to be broken. Simple

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    “Gordon Brown almost doubled spending per pupil over the past decade, the biggest money injection in the history of state education. But as he did so, England hurtled down the international league tables,”

    The “hurtling down the international league tables” has been discredited. The UK Statistics Watchdog censured the DfE for for ignoring warnings from the OECD that PISA results for the UK in 2000 were flawed and should NOT be used for comparison. It appears that the Spectator still feels able to mislead its readers. Further details about the UK Statistics Authority’s findings here:


    Other international test results place England in a more favourable light. See faq “Is the UK tumbling down the international league tables?” – at:

    Janet Downs

    • Tom M

      So if I understand your point then there is nothing to worry about in the results of state education for our children?

      I suggest you talk with people who meet other countries’ children and compare their academic capabilities before you start arguing about statistics.

      I was, at one point responsible for engineering for a company who spanned Europe. I saw what young people presenting themselves to the job market could do. Or in the UK’s case couldn’t do.

      A few that stick in my mind (all in the UK).

      A factory had a problem resolving raw material stocks. A long search found an employee (24 yrs old) who did not know what a decimal point was.

      Local college asked if we could identify those we employed who couldn’t read or write properly as they had an adult education scheme to help them! The college reckoned that about 25-30% of the local population fell into this bracket (their figures not mine).

      Once I was interviewing post grad. engineers. At the insistence of a colleague a test was set. One of the questions was to find the volume of a cylinder attached to a truncated frustrum. Dimensions given. Formula for frustrum given.Formula not given for the cylinder. Not one of the candidates supplied the correct answer. Some couldn’t calculate the volume of the cylinder!

    • FF42

      I have an issue with that language too. It’s not borne out by the statistics – Mr Gove was told off by the head of the UK Statistics Authority for making a similar claim. Fraser contradicts himself later in the article when he refers, more accurately, to Britain languishing in the middle.

      More defensibly, there is no discernable improvement in British educational outcomes, relative to other countries, following the real increases in expenditure of the previous government. So, you could pay teachers less and increase class sizes. It won’t be particularly popular with parents, let alone teachers, but it would save money without necessarily degrading the educational outcomes.

      There is no evidence that Fraser’s proposals will improve educational standards either. Countries that have improved didn’t do so principally by sacking bad teachers. Obviously everyone wants good teachers rather than bad. I run a small company and I just want good staff but basically I have to motivate the ones I have.

      • exSecondaryModernTeacher

        FF42 – the UK Stats Watchdog also said that international league table results are contradictory. TIMSS 2007, for example, put English pupils at the top of the European League for Maths and Science.

        We’ve had the results of TIMSS 2011 and the Pearson report since the Watchdog gave his warning about the misuse of international league tables. They show England (TIMSS) and the UK (Pearson) in a more favourable light. For more infor see faq “Is the UK tumbling down the international league tables?” at: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/faqs/#sthash.jEYs35cf.dpuf
        In order to attract the best graduates into teaching it’s necessary to pay them something near the amount they could earn in other professions. The OECD found that although starting salaries for teachers compared well with other countries the salaries for longer-serving teachers didn’t. This had an effect on retention and attracting teachers in the first place.
        You’re absolutely correct about the importance of motivation. Teachers in the English state system and constantly pilloried.
        Janet Downs

  • manonthebus

    I can’t see the point in wanting to be educated like the Australians. They are a great bunch of cobblers, but intellectual is not an adjective I would use. Laid-back would be closer to it. What we really want to be is educated like the East Asians of Hong Kong, Japan, S Korea and Taiwan and the SE Asians of Singapore. Then we would really be in a position to get the economy going.

  • Daniel Maris

    If we really want to improve educational outcomes we need to:

    1. Dramatically reduce the amount of teaching time per pupil and increase expenditure on education by 25%.

    2. Point 1 above will allow a dramatic reduction in class sizes – the key to improved performance.

    3. Harness IT to education – computer games, educational videos, internet tutorials.

    4. Improve the quality of nutrition – ensure that children can get a decent breakfast, lunch and tea at school.

    5. There should be different types of state secondary school available: academies (following traditional academic teaching) business and vocational schools (emphasising acquiring trades or an education in the commercial world) and specialist schools in large urban areas.

    6. Parents should be free to choose whichever school they want for their child. Popular schools will just have to expand on to other sites or take over unpopular schools. This would remove the ridiculous and unproductive anxiety centred on school choice.

    7. Bring in education vouchers that can also be applied to independent (private) schools – on condition they offer specalist teaching, access to sports facilties etc – this will do more than anything else to create a unified education system that brings us closer as a nation.

  • Daniel Maris

    I had an inspirational maths teacher followed by a truly awful maths teacher (from the army – had to have his mistakes corrected by the bright kids at the front). I am not sure it really made a huge difference to my maths outcome since that was never my main interest.

    Of course the worst teachers ought to be removed but good educational outcomes has much more to do with reducing class size (the private sector certainly see the merit of small class sizes). In the current age, we also have this huge resource of IT which we still make very little use of.

  • Teacher

    Define ‘good’ teacher and ‘bad’ teacher. Teachers are human beings and as various as their fellows. I suspect that if you could gain a consensus on what most people would define as a good teacher that that person would be so intelligent and articulate they would not consent to being reviled, bullied and pushed about.

  • Peter Bensley

    Why don’t we do this with all jobs?

    Fire all the bad managers, doctors, politicians, waiters, authors, actuaries – everything – and just hire good ones!

    Once every job is being done by someone who is brilliant at it, we will enter a golden age in which all curable illnesses are cured, all children are well-educated, all meals are delivered on time, all political decisions are wise, all insurance risks are on the nose, all books are a delight, and all companies are run with skill and compassion.

    It’s so simple, I’m amazed nobody has thought of it before!

  • Des

    I am a Canadian teacher who taught in the UK for a year, as jobs in Canada are scarce and the UK market for foreign teachers is through the roof. After about a week teaching the children here, I found out why no one in the UK wants to be a teacher.

    Your children are horrible monsters. Your parents are needy, manipulative, stupid, and totally uninterested in disciplining their bratty spawn. Your Heads of Department are lazy, unhelpful, and burden NQTs when they should be helping them and mentoring them. Your management is awful. Your exams are pathetic, and so is the curriculum. Your Headmasters are more concerned with kowtowing to parents than educating children. The “sets” system is ridiculous. Ofsted is useless.

    Sacking teachers won’t help you at this point. All that will do is force you to rely even more on the foreign teach-abroad programs to sucker poor, unsuspecting, bright-eyed new teachers to your desolate shores.

  • jonnyjackhammer

    100% correct Nelson. I’ve never doubted it – but I thought I was the only person in education who thought like that. I wish Govey would ring me up. I would be his adviser for free rather than the 70K they seem to be paying. The first thing he could do is get rid of this stupid ruling about only employing people with 2:1 or 1st Class degrees. This has no bearing on how good a teacher you may or may not be. Then he should free up and empower teachers. I don’t always need a three part lesson and to have documentary evidence of every lesson plan. Then he should get rid of many Head teachers – particularly those who favour hour long (and more) lessons which bore the pants off most pupils. AHHHHH. I’m so cross………….