Political devolution occurred in the UK in 1998–99, following many years in which some degree of policy administration had been devolved to the four nations. Since devolution, all four countries of the UK have pursued increasingly divergent education policies. This is true in England in particular, where diversity, choice and competition have become a key focus of education policy. This political divergence between the four nations gives us the opportunity to appraise differences and similarities in educational policies and outcomes in the four UK nations.
This article is a comparative review of the education reforms of the constituent countries of the UK, with particular focus on value for money.
The main aims of the article are to
- outline the key differences in the educational systems in terms of school type, choice and competition, educational resources and pedagogy;
- describe how the countries compare in terms of educational attainment during compulsory schooling years;
- examine inequalities in educational attainment, such as by gender and socio-economic status, and how the different countries compare on these measures; and
- examine existing evidence on the effectiveness and value for money of different education policies and programmes in the different countries.
We use a variety of sources of evidence to achieve these aims. We undertake a literature review of the existing evidence on the effectiveness and value for money of different programmes and policies that have taken place across the UK. We also collate and undertake an analysis of data on educational outcomes from published statistics sourced from the national statistics offices of each country. It is easier to be confident about comparisons based on international data sets because in this case all students will have taken exactly the same test, so we also compile and analyse survey data from international surveys of educational attainment such as PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS.
We argue that while the systems of the four countries of the UK are becoming increasingly divergent, there are still many similarities. This is borne out in the evidence on educational outcomes, which show many similarities between the four countries. Because of these similarities, the positive impacts of many of the policies and programmes adopted in England may have relevance for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
We find evidence that increasing school resources improves results, and also that more targeted spending benefits able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. We also find positive results of several programmes. Evaluating the education policies of the four nations in terms of value for money – and therefore whether they have scope to be adopted – represents a bigger challenge. Whilst the value for money of certain policies – such as the literacy hour – can be reasonably well measured, for many other policies, value for money is hard to pin down accurately. However, this forms an important direction for future research.