A Failure of Journalism

Henry Stewart's picture
If you are going to accuse a quarter of English schools of failure, you might think to do a check on whether the facts you are using are accurate. But such a basic requirement did not seem to occur to our education journalists last week. The BBC, for instance, led its report with the claim that “almost a quarter of England’s sixth forms and colleges have failed to produce any pupils with the top A-level grades sought by leading universities”.

This statement was based on the new measure of secondary school performance, that of the % of sixth form students achieving AAB in three 'facilitating subjects'. It is not clear where the belief that top universities require three facilitating A levels came from. The advice from the Russell Group is that students should take not three but two 'facilitating' A levels and they specifically say that the third A level can be a 'soft' subject. Did those journalists make that simple call to the Russell Group to check their statements? It seems not. Here's some indications that the assertion was nonsense:

** At the school I chair none of the students who have received offers from Oxbridge took three facilitating subjects
** Headteacher @kalinski1970 tweeted that, of the students from his school receiving offers from Russell Group universities, 86% did not have three facilitating A levels.
** Lisa Freedman noted in a letter to the Guardian that at Westminster, one of the most academic and selective private schools, only 38% achieved three facilitating A levels, although over half went to Oxbridge - and many more will have gone to Russell Group universities.

it may be that some schools do not help their students choose the right subjects for the top universities. But this data gives no evidence as to whether that is the case, or what proportion of schools it might be. Those education journalists who accused one quarter of English schools of failure should retract their statements and apologise to the schools that they have slandered.

I do not know if the % is given for three, rather than two, facilitating subjects. It may simply be a mistake. Or, more worryingly, it could be a further push by Mr Gove to drive creative subjects out of the curriculum. If schools react to the new measure by encouraging students to take three facilitating subjects, it will mean less taking subjects like Music, Drama and Art - even though these may be the strongest subjects for these students, and ones which they would get high grades in, which would help them get into good universities.

Why is Michael Gove Not Challenged?

If Osborne claims his economic policies are working, the media finds politicians or economists who hold different views. If the government makes claims about health we generally hear from doctors or health experts who disagree. If the Home Secretary criticises the police we can expect to hear their defence.

But when Michael Gove's Department for Education issues a press release it is too often repeated verbatim without question or challenge. The assertions of success for academies and the attacks on state schools and our hard working teachers are regularly repeated without question. Should not education journalists do their job properly, and make clear that these are the views of the DfE and not fact, and carry out some basic fact checking and search for alternative opinions? This is surely the most fundamental requirement of a serious reporter.

There are honourable exceptions, most notably Christopher Cook in the Financial Times, and also the TES (Times Educational Supplement). But these seem to be in a small minority.

GCSE Results: The Myth of Academy Success

Another example from last week is the DfE claim that GCSE results of sponsored academies grew at five times the rate of non-academies. No paper questioned whether the comparison was appropriate or asked why the DfE was only talking of sponsored academies and not mentioning the results of converter academies (whose GCSE results had fallen).

Our coverage made clear that, when compared to similar schools, non-academies did as well as academies. it is true that the data was complex but journalists were given access to it 24 hours before the embargo time. Only Christopher Cook seems to have used this time to do his own analysis, with most simply repeating or rewording the DfE press release. We didn't get the data at LSN until the embargo time of 9.30 last Thursday but i sent a press release that afternoon to most education journalists making clear the alternative view - but no publication included it as a balance to the DfE claims.

Today Full Fact published its analysis and confirmed our findings. It made that the "Department for Education's claim that standards in academies are rising 'more than five times as quickly than in all state-funded schools' doesn't show us the the full picture". This was, of course, the fact repeated without question by most publications reporting the results.

Time to Complain

The Local Schools Network was formed largely in response to a press that unquestioningly repeated the attacks on state schools and the claims made by this government (as well as some of those made by the previous one). It is clear that little has improved and too many educational journalists suspend their judgement and critical faculties and take whatever Michael Gove and the DfE says as true.

We deserve better. The dedicated students, staff and school leaders deserve to be appreciated when they do a great job and not to see the attacks of an Education Secretary, with his own reactionary agenda, repeated as facts. We need journalists to actively search out what is really going on in our education system and to question massive structural changes that have so far delivered no perceivable benefit, but at huge cost.

I humbly offer my services to any education journalist wishing to check some facts. My email is henry @happy.co.uk and my mobile is 07870 682442. I do not expect you to publish my analysis as verbatim truth, any more than you should do that for DfE claims, but I promise to provide an alternative view and to point out possible flaws in the data.

Personally I will be submitting complaints to the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Times and Independent about this misreporting - the false claim that a quarter of English schools failed to produce any students with the right grades for our top universities and the misleading claim that academies grew five times as fast as non-academies.

Where to Complain

BBC: make a complaint about http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21162960 at http://bit.ly/T70MtK
(Info below was also transmitted on BBC News at ten on 24th Jan) 

Article states:  "Almost a quarter of England's sixth forms and colleges have failed to produce any pupils with the top A-level grades sought by leading universities." In print they did qualify the 5x claim, but I don't recall them doing so in the TV broadcast.

Channel 4: http://www.channel4.com/news/a-quarter-of-schools-fail-to-give-pupils-any-decent-gcses Complain to http://www.channel4.com/4viewers/contact-us

"Some one in four schools and colleges are failing to produce any students with top grades in A-level subjects that will help them win a place at a leading university, new league tables suggest." No comment on academies and CSEs

Guardian: I can't find offending article but it is cached by Google at http://bit.ly/14qOHCb. Complain by email to the Readers Editor at reader@guardian.co.uk
"A new set of figures this year shows the numbers of students at each institution getting at least two As and one B in "facilitating" subjects, the type of A-levels identified by the Russell Group of leading universities as their preferred routes to entry. These are maths and further mathematics, English literature, the three sciences, geography, history and languages. Just over a quarter of schools and colleges, about 600, did not have a single pupil reaching this standard" & "This argument received some backing in the latest GCSE figures, which showed the proportion of students reaching the five good GCSEsstandard rose by 3.1 percentage points in sponsored academies, as against a national rise for state schools of 0.6 of a percentage point."

Sunday Times: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/comment/regulars/thinktank/article1202080.ece. Complain to ??

"Thursday’s school league tables revealed that in a quarter of English sixth forms and colleges not a single student achieved the A-level grades needed to go to one of our leading universities."

Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9828734/Brightest-pupils-failed-by-state-schools-chief-inspector-warns.html Complain at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/about-us/form/

"League tables showed that hundreds of secondary schools did not produce a single pupil with high enough grades in tough academic subjects to win a place at elite universities."


Feel free to add any other publications in comments.
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