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The effect of school inputs and educational attainments

The effect of school inputs on educational attainments is a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

The project, designed to be informative for policy makers and academics alike, studies the effect of school inputs such as how much money is spent per pupil and staff/pupil ratios on pupils’ educational attainments at the age of 16. Its aim is then to establish whether these inputs are equally beneficial to pupils from different backgrounds.


The Spending Review has seen the schools budget in England emerging relatively unscathed. However, from the academic year 2011/2012 a unified ‘pupil premium’ will replace a multiple number of income streams previously received by schools, and this will have implications for the allocation of funding between schools, as well as for the overall budget.

The pupil premium will be allocated according to the number of pupils registered for receipt of free school meals. It is therefore expected that schools with a high proportion of pupils from deprived backgrounds will have an increase in their funding whereas some of the more affluent schools may experience budget cuts.

The changes may also lead to a reduction in the overall school budget as the premium has been calculated based on the expectation of a 15% increase in the number of children registered for free school meals. If the increase in free school meal registrations is lower, the overall school budget will likely shrink (Sibieta 2010).

Little is known about how such shifts in funding or funding cuts might affect educational attainments of pupils of different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds and at different levels of prior attainment. This project will look at the effect of school inputs on educational attainments and whether this effect varies between pupils from diverse backgrounds at the end of compulsory schooling, and thereby inform this current debate.


The project is making use of the National Pupil Database, a school register dataset for England. It will provide the research team with information on all pupils who took Key Stage 4 exams (GCSE or equivalent) in 2007 or in one of the three following years. From 2007-2009 there are 1.7 million pupils in the sample, of whom 350,000 are siblings. When adding the data for the academic year 2009/10 (and for 2010/2011, when available), the sample size will be even larger, enabling the team to get precise estimates for various sub-groups.

The NPD is a high quality data source (few missing variables and little measurement error) and covers the population of all pupils in state schools, i.e. the group that can be directly targeted by public policy. This allows the research team to

  • adopt school input measures using information on all state schools and all pupils enrolled in these schools
  • obtain precise estimates even when focusing on small sub-groups such as different ethnicities
  • identify pupils who are siblings

The research team has already created a unique sibling indicator for the NPD. This was produced by matching pupils living at the same address in January 2007, and much care was taken in extracting not only house name/number and postcode, but also block and flat information to make sure they accurately match disadvantaged siblings who are more likely to live in large housing estates.

Information on how schools spent their money in the academic years 2002/2003 to 2009/2010 will then be looked at in conjunction with the NPD including details on how schools spend their money per pupil, distinguishing between spending categories such as, for example, teaching staff, education support staff, administration, ICT equipment, other learning resources and catering.

What the researchers will do

The researchers expect to:

  • identify the effect of school resources
  • establish the extent to which the effect of school inputs varies by the pupil’s background
  • assess whether school inputs so far have been effective for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • identify the groups of pupils for whom cuts in school resources would be most detrimental
  • inform about the likely consequences for pupils from different backgrounds of the current introduction of the ‘pupil premium’ which changes the distribution of funding between schools and may lead to overall spending cuts

Project Aims

Specifically, the project has two objectives:

  • to analyse the effect of school inputs on pupils’ educational attainment at the end of compulsory schooling, i.e. at about age 16
  • to test differences in returns to school inputs across children with diverse backgrounds and attainments

In terms of policy, the project takes up a topic that is high on the political agenda at the moment, given the current changes to the ways schools are funded. The results will inform about the likely consequences for pupils from different backgrounds of the current introduction of the ‘pupil premium’.

In particular, the research findings will help identify the groups of pupils that benefit most from school inputs and are therefore most vulnerable to spending cuts. Moreover, they will show whether school inputs so far have been effective for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The researchers anticipate that the results will be of interest for any review of the allocation mechanisms for school funding, so they would be taken up by education policy makers who are concerned with how funding is allocated to schools.

Ultimately the project hopes to contribute to the discussion and policy making around the allocation of school resources and how to put them to the best use in order to improve educational outcomes and therefore give children from all backgrounds the best chance in life.

Team members

Professor Cheti Nicoletti

- University of York

Cheti Nicoletti is a Professor in the Department of Economics and Related Studies at the University of York. She is also an ISER Associate. Her research is on empirical labour economics with special reference to intergenerational mobility, children health and educational outcomes, inequality, fertility, school and neighborhood effects, sample selection issues and measurement errors.

Dr Birgitta Rabe

Research Fellow - ISER

Birgitta Rabe is a Research Fellow at ISER. She specialises in empirical research in family and labour economics.


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