Steve McCormack: Why do we spend so much money on schools?

Like all public sectors, the education world is holding its breath to see where and when the spending axe will fall. The ubiquitous question: who will suffer when the funding tap – free flowing since the early Blair days – is squeezed? But I have a different question. Are we, in our blinkered British bubble, deluding ourselves in assuming that less money will necessarily mean a less effective education system? And the reverse applies equally. Does more money necessarily mean more learning?

My suspicion that we do overrate raw spending levels was strengthened at a recent conference in Bah-rain ( www.educationprojecbahrain. org), where a couple of hundred educationalists – teachers, managers, campaigners – from every corner of the globe exchanged experiences and ideas. It was an uncomfortable place to be English as the light the conference shone on our school system revealed some disturbing truths.

The message came home most pointedly in a session chaired by Ralph Tabberer, a man who knows a thing or two about the English state school system: he ran it for three years, leaving his post as the Government's Director General for Schools in 2009. He is now the chief schools officer for GEMS Education, which runs independent schools around the world, including a few in the UK.

The particular discussion centred on education funding, and the models most likely to produce value for money. The outstanding contribution, which stopped many of us in our tracks, came from Dr Taddy Blecher, a South African who has successfully launched a college for the poorest, most dispossessed teenagers living on the margins of society in Johannesburg. To an awestruck room, Blecher described how he has pulled this off with next to no funding. The unique ingredient is that students, while they're studying, work for campus-based small businesses to pay for tuition. Older students are expected to help teach younger ones, and overheads are kept to a minimum with students, for example, doing the campus cleaning and basic maintenance. This creates highly motivated students who surge ahead and gain life-changing qualifications. Summing up, Blecher made a simple observation: "Perhaps having no money helps?" His point was that motivation always trumps financial considerations.

In response, Tabberer, who was in change of a gargantuan schools budget of £34bn at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, said he found Blecher's story inspiring and fascinating in equal measure. He displayed a graph that served to underline Blecher's point. It showed the educational achievement of pupils at a Gems secondary school serving the Indian immigrant community in Dubai, where each pupil is funded, in real terms, at one-fifth the rate that the taxpayer lavishes on English state school children. But these Dubai children, who follow the English curriculum in a second language, get GCSE results that would put most state schools in England to shame. The reason? They turn up with an unquenchable thirst for learning.

Given Tabberer's recent position as a senior civil servant, he does not comment publicly on the system he left behind. But he did not really need to say anything. He had focused attention on what is the elephant in the room of English education: the fact that vast numbers of British children go through 11 years of expensive, publicly-funded education with a mindset that hovers between indifference and hostility. Result: chronic underachievement on a large scale. The money we chuck at them evaporates with hardly a brain cell stirred.

That's the problem. We have created and tolerate an atmosphere that incubates an anti-education attitude in too many young minds. The extra money poured into education for more than a decade have had little impact. We've spent zillions on new buildings, technology and qualification systems, with endless targeted initiatives, all wrapped up in the feel-good cloak of "Every Child Matters". To negligible effect. The latest example of this is truancy rates now higher than at any time since 1994, despite hundreds (yes hundreds) of millions of pounds spent on initiatives to reduce it. The message is clear. Money isn't the answer to our educational dysfunction.

So, we drastically need some new thinking and some risk-taking to shake us out of the status quo. Here is one idea from the Bahrain conference. Children should only be allowed to progress from one school year to the next if they pass a basic threshold of achievement, with only the genuinely weak protected. They do it in some countries. Here, it would cause short-term chaos as thousands of lazy and disruptive children and their families realise too late that free education comes with strings. But in the medium term it might provide a jolt to reshape a cosy mindset.

The writer teaches maths part-time at comprehensive schools in London