More kids means more education spending

I’m tied up with other commitments today, but I happened to notice this chart from the OECD.

education spending

Since today is also the day the primary/intermediate teachers’ strike hits Wellington, it seemed timely.

In some ways, it is quite a striking chart.  New Zealand devotes the second largest share of GDP to education of any OECD country, exceeded only by super-rich Norway (as far as I can see this is an estimate of total public and private spending).

And yet, once one looks even a bit more closer it is less interesting than it might have seen.  For example, at the other end of the chart both Ireland and Luxembourg have GDPs that are flattered by unusual effects –  in Ireland’s case, the impact of their corporate tax system (which ends up exaggerating the true economic value occurring in Ireland, and does not reflect value accruing to the Irish), and in Luxembourg’s case, the fact that a lot of the GDP arises from people who work in tiny (financial centre) Luxembourg but live across the border in various neighbouring countries (their kids won’t be using Luxembourg’s schools).

And in our case, who uses schools and universities?  Mostly children and young people, and if you don’t have many children you’ll need to spend less (as a share of GDP) on education.   As this chart shows, of the OECD countries only Turkey, Mexico and Israel have a higher total fertility rate at present than New Zealand does.   Our TFR this particular year was 1.9 (births per woman) while that for, say, Japan was about 1.4.  That makes a big difference to how much needs to be spent on schools (all else equal about a third more).  Iceland spends as much on schools as we do, but with quite a bit smaller a birth rate.

Total fertility rate (2016)

And the other thing that marks us out relative to most OECD countries, although not all, is a high rate of immigration.  Not all migrants, by any means, have children with them when they move here (temporarily or permanently) but some do.  It all adds to the amount (share of GDP) needing to be spent on education.

Both birth rates and migration rates are just one of those things that people doing education budgets just have to take as given.    The other thing that you’d expect to influence education spending quite substantially is class sizes –  even at tertiary level the old Oxford/Cambridge tutorial system is a lot more resource intensive than, say, stage 1 lectures with 350 young people with largish tutorials run by honours students. But there tends to be more of a focus on school class sizes.  Unfortunately, the charts in the OECD Education at a Glance publications don’t have New Zealand data for pupil/teacher ratios, but here is the chart.

Average class size in primary education, by type of institutions (2016)


What I found striking is how wide the range of practices is.  It isn’t just that richer countries have smaller class sizes –  Chile is at one end and Costa Ricas at the other –  even though my understanding of the educational research is that smaller class sizes is mostly just a luxury item, with little or no impact on educational outcomes.   Shifting from one end to the other is likely to have significant implications for the cost of primary school education.  I have no idea where New Zealand would sit on the chart: I’m always a bit surprised how small my children’s class sizes have been, but that probably just marks me out as an old fogey, recalling classes in the mid-high 30s back in the early 1970s.

I don’t have any particular conclusion to this post, other than the caution that a high share of GDP devoted to schooling sheds –  on its own – precisely no light on the reasonableness, or otherwise, of the teachers’ claims, and their strike.  Having said that, I’d have preferred my daughter’s Principal not to have been using public resources to email us all urging parents to support the industrial action, join the protest rally etc.

11 thoughts on “More kids means more education spending

  1. Interesting. We spend on education but need immigrants for their skills. Of course in general immigrants have more children (read that 46% of children born in Germany are children of immigrants) but when the stats for the economic benefits of immigration are published these children are ‘native born’.

    Your chart leaves out the most important part of education: pre-school.


    • I’m sceptical of the argument behind your final sentence. I’m quite with the old Jesuit line about give me the child til he is 7 and I’ll give you the man, but in most cases pre-school has very little to do with that. There are a few exceptions where early intervention programmes have worked v well, but mostly pre-school is child-minding. Personally, and in the case of my kids, I think secondary education (quality thereof) is far more important than primary (or pre-school) because by year 11 (where my oldest is) they are getting to areas where I can’t realistically provide strong content input (at least on subjects that I’m not that interested in).

      More generally, probably much of education spending is really child-minding. Serious home schoolers report that their kids typically spend much less than 6 hours a day on formal learning.


      • I cannot remember where I read about it (happy to be prompted by another reader) but in the USA a head of Education decided to experiment with high quality preschool for randomly selected pupils. They started school with skills that had them ahead (measured by reading comprehension, etc) but as the years passed that advantage declined to zero (aged about 10). So they had just decided it was a big waste of money until a few years later (your year 11) and they were doing their first seriously important exams. Then they performed better than the average – the reason they performed better was simple – they didn’t give up when it got difficult. When they measured the improvement and calculated its value (reduced likelihood of prison, etc) it was the best investment of resources.

        The underlying idea makes sense to me. You can improve your determination before you are school age. Anecdotally my wife and her siblings were brought up by their mother an illiterate village woman. She gave them a quiet determination that resulted in all seven of her children being successful (Teacher, Diplomat, Surveyor, Journalist, Accountant, Town Planner, Computer manager). Maybe the Jesuits were right.

        I agree with you about the child minding. Finland has a successful educational system with far less schooling.

        Govt investment in pre-schools gives all children an equivalent to the advantage that you gave your children – an attentive parent at home. This becomes ever more important as:
        (a) fewer parents at home, more parents working
        (b) fewer children playing together in the street [helicopter parenting] so minimal peer group learning
        (c) increasing inequality and poverty because our economy has stalled
        (d) young children separated by language courtesy of high immigration from non English speaking countries
        (e) children pre-occupied by screens.

        You should not judge the most important period in education by your own abilities; many children cannot be helped by a parent well before they are in year 11..


      • He comes to this conclusion “”My intuition tells me that in twenty years, when all the results are in, I expect early childhood programs to continue having small positive effects.””

        With no evidence I’ll assert that what happens to a child between birth and starting school is vitally important That modern education is a sizable fraction of a lifespan so ought to be pleasant in its own right as well as a preparation for adult life. That for the first time ever society is changing so quickly that it is hard to predict what adult life will be like fifteen years from now.

        “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” – Oscar Wilde


  2. I believe John Hattie in his meta analysis concluded providing quality ‘feedback’ was one of the most effective factors in improving achievement? I believe he didn’t rate class size that highly hence National’s (aborted thankfully) attempt to raise it. Problem is, as a former teacher, I know that the quality of feedback given to each pupil was much better with 15 in a class as compared to those with 30. There is just no comparison in terms of rapport and quality of verbal and written feedback. One thing to note is that the penchant towards group projects and self-directed learning today means that smaller classes are very important as it requires more teacher monitoring and guidance compared to the direct instruction models with controlled practice. Otherwise they’ll all be on youtube watching Minecraft how to vids (or worse) instead of “researching” (cut and pasting from wikipedia) photosynthesis.


    • I was quite influenced in my comment by hearing a lecture John Hattie gave at Treasury almost a decade ago. I’m interested in the connection you draw between today’s teaching/learning fashions and the need for lower teacher/pupil ratios. I’m not convinced those “modern’ learning methods work effectively for many/most, but I can see the argument if they are the techniques being used widely.


      • Well, I’m not at all convinced they work either. And I suspect international test data will show some big declines for NZ in coming years. You can much more efficiently teach a larger group using direct instruction (this doesn’t mean non-interactive instruction), controlled practice type methods – but you obviously need a high degree of discipline (the ability to quietly listen and then do a few written exercises is sadly lacking in NZ schools I’m afraid). With group inquiry/discovery learning, everyone “with individual learning plans” and lots of “choice” the task becomes a lot harder with a large class. Monitoring is much more difficult. You are effectively facilitating 10 different lessons at once – rather than one. The potential for what is euphemistically called “off-task” behaviour is greatly increased if trying this with large classes. You simply can’t get around all the groups in the hour. The naughty group will take all your time as you cajole/beg/bribe them to get interested in “acting like an expert” when they know nothing about the subject in the first place. Alas, the problem (poor attention spans/poor discipline) is pandered to by trying to turn all education into “authentic inquiry projects” that don’t involve any actual reading and writing (hard work) instead of tackled head on (turn off the Ipad/have high expectations). If you up class sizes with the current pedagogy you’re in for even greater chaos.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is why the government has just upped the teacher migrant numbers to 850 for next year. Lets hope our kids won’t be speaking in an indian or Filipino accent in the future.


      • Given that we are also expecting 1500 islamic refugees every year, I would not be surprised that we would have the Koran taught in schools soon together with arabic languages as the primary language of choice.

        In Auckland we have

        Al-Madinah School
        Iqra Elementary School
        Zayed College for girls
        Avondale Islamic Centre
        Islamic Ahlulbayt Foundation of New Zealand
        East Auckland Islamic Trust

        In Dunedin we have

        An Nur Boarding School
        Al Huda Mosque

        Trust chairman Mohammad Alayan said Muslim children attending state secular schools were subjected to an educational environment which pressured them to adopt values which were contradictory to Islamic values, such as evolution theory, sexual relations outside of marriage and drinking.

        To alleviate this “cultural deficiency”, the trust would establish An-Nur Kiwi Academy (AKA)


  3. Tis is from MBIE

    The demand for migrant workers has grown as most IGC Participating States are experiencing demographic changes which mean that they cannot exclusively rely on “making” their own skilled workers. Natural population growth rates have slowed in many developed countries due to declining fertility and longer life expectancy. Additionally, a highly competitive global market means that employers are continually demanding more labour and higher-skilled labour. As economies move to a more service-based orientation and knowledge-intensive or high-tech manufacturing and services to stimulate and sustain economic growth, this demand for more educated and skilled workers – in many cases workers from offshore – grows. The literature suggests that features such as high education and experience requirements, as well as workers who have a global focus and knowledge, make migrants particularly attractive.—settlement/employers%20role%20and%20influence%20in%20migration-lit-review.pdf


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