Statistics watchdog gets tough with DfE re use of data

Janet Downs's picture
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The Department for Education’s use of statistics has often been criticised by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).  Using flawed figures to claim the UK was plummeting down league tables in 2010, the schools minister ‘inadvertently’ repeating the same claim in 2016 , spouting misleading stats at the 2014 Tory Conference, dodgy data re applications to grammar schools…  These lapses, and more, have kept UKSA busy.

The DfE, however, doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of UKSA's censure and has continued churning out misleading propaganda.   The latest DfE use of dubious  data was a press release issued in September about free schools.  The puff piece depended on ‘differing definitions of free schools’, UKSA concluded. 

The press release has now been reissued - a pointless exercise.  The original press release would already have been churned by the media.  A ‘corrected’ version is unlikely to be read.  It would have been better if the Education Secretary had issued a statement apologising for misleading the public.

It appears this press release was the last straw.   UKSA has had enough.  It's written a letter to Mike Jones, Deputy Director and Head of Profession for Statistics at the DfE, laiyng down how the ‘high public value’ of DfE data can be upheld.  That’s UKSA-speak telling the DfE to stop spinning statistics.

UKSA says the DfE must be transparent about plans for developing and releasing new statistics.  This follows UKSA’s concerns about the tardy publication of academy transfer costs – concerns shared by Schools Week and this site.  It welcomed the recent publication of the data but said the gap between promising to publish rebrokerage costs in early 2016 and eventual release was ‘excessive’.

The DfE must also ‘review and revise’ processes to ensure the DfE’s stats department has ‘sole responsibility’ for releasing statistics.  Procedures allowing DfE statisticians to comment on data used in DfE speeches, statements and press releases should be revised.  This oversight should move from a ‘simple factual accuracy check of individual numbers’ to a ‘more comprehensive final sign off’.

These two recommendations are intended to prevent DfE propagandists and speech writers from churning out suspect statements.

UKSA ends its letter with a warning.  It’s wrapped up in a mild term about seeking ‘to secure greater understanding’ but means this:

There’s a Code of Practice covering the use of statistics.  The DfE should follow this and not treat statistics as movable figures to deceive the public.

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