FullFact: "gross exaggeration” to claim there is a qualification in claiming benefits

Janet Downs's picture
Media claims that there is a “GCSE” or a BTEC in claiming benefits are a “gross exaggeration”, FullFact has found.

Even the Prime Minister has claimed that there was a GCSE equivalent course in personal effectiveness which included how to complete a benefits form.

FullFact investigated the latest outing of the claim in the Spectator on 21 September:

"Better to let them [working class children] drop the foreign language requirement and do a BTEC in how to claim the dole instead. (I’m not making that last qualification up, by the way.) That’s not “elitist”. Oh no. That’s “inclusive”."

FullFact found that the course in question, which had been cleared by Ofqual following earlier media complaints, was the ASDAN Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) which included an optional task about benefits which was part of one optional section of one optional module.

The author of the Spectator article, however, seems to have missed the “optional” description. In response to a tweet which must have accused him of making things up, he wrote:

“@jdportes I didn't make up any facts. The factcheckers discovered that there is in fact a module in a BTEC on claiming the dole (35 minutes ago)”

What the “factcheckers” actually found was “Learning which benefits unemployed individuals might be entitled to is part of the [CoPE] course, but is only one optional task (out of ten) in one optional section (out of three) in one optional module (out of twelve)".

So, the task wasn’t actually a whole module just a tenth of an optional section in an optional one.

FullFact concluded “This is one example of 'Chinese whispers' that needs to be put to bed.”  Let's hope we hear no more exagerrated claims about GCSEs in drawing the dole.

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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 19:57

Why does the fact that it was optional make it any less real?

agov's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 10:10

It doesn't. It makes it an exaggeration. As Janet explained.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 15:05

Thank you, agov. Those who think it is legitimate to exaggerate in this way and claim that a tiny part of an exam is the whole qualification are guilty of distortion. For example, learner drivers are taught that they should hold the steering wheel at the ten-to-two position - this is a small part of the whole process of learning to drive. Now imagine the headlines if the same exaggeration were applied to driving:

"Mickey-Mouse courses - learner drivers get tuition in how to hold a wheel!"

"I'm not making it up - there's a qualification in how to hold a steering wheel."

"GCSE in holding a steering wheel - damning claims of dumbing down go up a gear."

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 10:37

You have missed your vocation, Janet. That last one wouldn't shame the Daily Mail.

However, as you are fully aware, owing to the vocational path you actually traveled, the conceptual substitution of a part for the whole is not 'exaggeration' but synecdoche - a form of metonymy.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 16:07

So when the examiner starts an exam by saying, "You may pick up your pen and begin," that's only a synecdoche because picking up the pen refers to the whole exam (it's part of the pathway along which the candidate must travel in order to complete the whole test)? If so, then I can imagine some more headlines:

"BTEC in biro use! Exams nibble away at standards."

"GCSE in how to hold a pen - INKredible!"

"No exams in biro use at flagship free school - pupils will be expected to use quills."

Tubby Isaacs's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 20:24


The tasks are describe how you'd feel or produce an information sheet. They aren't claiming benefits.

Grow up.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 18:21

The Spectator article also contained this misinformation: “England plummeted in the OECD’s international league tables. In 2000, our 15-year-olds were ranked eighth in the world for maths. By 2009, they’d fallen to 27th.”

Regular readers will know that scores for England and the UK in 2000 in the OECD PISA tests can’t be used for comparison (see faqs above). Young knows that, of course, but ignores the prohibition and keeps using them. And he seems not to know about the last Trends in Maths and Science Survey in 2007 which found that English pupils were at the top of the European league in both maths and science at ages 10 and 14.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 12:34

I think we discussed the heart of the Spectator's point on p40/41 here?

Adrian Elliott's picture
Tue, 02/10/2012 - 10:38

Surely,the obvious response to this is would anyone be taken seriously if they claimed they had a 16 plus qualification in French when the study of French in their course had occupied as small a part of the total course as the benefits bit does on this one? Clearly,they wouldn't be; not least by David Cameron or the writer of the Spectator article.

Mind, Cameron does have previous in this area.

In 2005 when he was, briefly, shadow education secretary he said children should be learning 'proper history' and not about 'Henry VIII's marital difficulties'.
Some of us who studied 'proper history' for many years were under the impression that Henry's marriage problems had the most profound effect on the political,social,diplomatic,military and, of course, ecclesiastical history of England for over 300 years .

But then some of us might just have managed to translate 'magna carta' if asked.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 02/10/2012 - 12:11


Do you have a link to Cameron saying that in 2005?

I only ask because I have tried my newspaper archive service and Google and can only find one reference to the event - an article in TES in 2009, written by........you.

I'm surprised by the media blackout - it would be a good story, if true. Though it would also be surprising, given that Samantha Cameron is descended not only from Mary Boleyn (sister of Anne), but also fromMargaret Howard (sister of Catherine). You'd think an interest in Henry's 'marital difficulties' would....er.....run in the family.

Then, perhaps it's just an 'urban myth'. Where did you pick it up?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 02/10/2012 - 12:47

Ah - that's why he had an interest in Henry VIII marital difficulties!

Adrian if you want something that's thoroughly referenced you could refer to Gove's guff about 'Our Island Story'.


I have to say I completely agree with him that all children should be taught 'Our Island Story'. When I read my dad's copy (his history text at school) it taught me a great deal about the extent to which history is propaganda and how much dubious stuff is taught as being fact and believed in its time.

Shame Gove clearly didn't actually know what he was talking about. Again. Yawn. Grump. Grump over.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Tue, 02/10/2012 - 16:38

'Then, perhaps it’s just an ‘urban myth’. Where did you pick it up?'

D.T 27/07/05.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/10/2012 - 11:59

Adrian - here's the link to the DT article just in case someone thinks you were making it all up. The article was penned by the then Conservative spokesman on education, one David Cameron:

"Parts of the curriculum have become a byword for political correctness, with, for example, students asked to consider Henry VIII's marital troubles rather than what he actually did."

Never mind that Henry's "marital troubles" had repercussions - didn't they trigger a rift with Rome (or somewhere)?


Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/10/2012 - 12:20

Rebecca - according to the Telegraph, "Our Island Story" was Cameron's favourite childhood book. Perhaps Samantha should be a little concerned about what that book claims is the reason behind King Henry VIII divorcing Catherine of Aragon:

"Queen Katherine had done no wrong, but she was some years older than Henry, and now that he had been married to her for nearly twenty years, and she was no longer young and pretty, he had grown tired and wanted another wife."

So, according to "Our Island Story", Henry traded Catherine in for a younger model.



Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 06/10/2012 - 16:35

Aha.....so Adrian was indeed totally misrepresenting the burden of what David Cameron said, as now are you Janet.

What Cameron was objecting to, it is now clear, was the style of teaching (sadly all too common) where students are set a homework or class exercise such as

Imagine you were Catherine of Aragon. Describe how you feel about Henry's relationship with Anne Boleyn. Contrast the ways a woman would express such feelings in Tudor times with how she would today.

i.e. Cameron was attacking a flaky, politically correct, subjective and ahistorical approach to the study of this important subject. What he was NOT doing is what Adrian (and now you ) implied - belittling the historical significance of Henry's divorce.

The story, as told by Adrian, has turned out to be the urban myth I had a hunch it was.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 06/10/2012 - 16:44

"Cameron was attacking a flaky, politically correct, subjective and ahistorical approach to the study of this important subject."
Sounds like 'Our Island Story'
So he's directly disagreeing with Gove according to Ricky.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 06/10/2012 - 16:46

Although your argument seems to be structured to prove that the opposite of an opposite is the opposite.
It really doesn't sound like you have a clue what you're talking about. Rather like Michael Gove arguing for the teaching of 'Our Island Story'.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 07/10/2012 - 08:12

Thank you, Rebecca, for replying to RT's post saying that Adrian and I were "misrepresenting" what Cameron said. It may be "clear" to RT that Cameron was attacking a "style of teaching" which RT says is "sadly too common" (with no evidence to back up that statement) but that's not what Cameron said. He linked a generalised attack on "political correctness" (this always goes down well in the DT) with Henry VII's "marital problems" (cue rolling of eyes - if that Spanish woman had produced a living male heir like she was supposed to then Henry wouldn't have been forced to take desperate measures).

I was amused, however, my RT's parody of a supposed task asking about the feelings of Catherine of Aragon. But pupils don't have to imagine her thoughts - they can go to the primary sources to discover them. But perhaps they'd be dismissed as too "subjective".


As Mrs Lintott said in "The History Boys": "Can you, for a moment, imagine how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? ...History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket."

Nothing much changes, then. Or perhaps that's just another "urban myth".

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