The grey world of statistics – Gove’s latest speech

Janet Downs's picture
Students are motivated by "the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought", education secretary, Michael Gove, told the Independent Academies Association. But he wasn’t quoting Fifty Shades of Grey - he was linking satisfaction with successful achievement. And he's right - everyone enjoys doing something well whether it’s succeeding in exams, exceeding a sporting best, or getting a soufflé to rise after several botched attempts. However, Mr Gove’s view of success applies only to test results. While being near the top of the leader board may inspire high attainers, being stuck in the middle or, worse, bouncing around at the bottom doesn’t do much to encourage the others.

That’s not to say there shouldn’t be exams – all pupils need to prove their level of attainment whether excellent or basic. But, according to Gove, failing in exams shows pupils what they need to practise. However, if a pupil can’t resit an exam then no amount of practise is going to overturn the result.

Gove continued the exam theme by comparing the UK graduation rate of “just 37 per cent” with the higher 50 to 60 per cent in Australia, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, South Korea and Norway. But according to the OECD, the most recent (2010) data shows that the UK, Australia and Denmark have the third highest graduation rate (50%) of all OECD countries beaten only by Iceland (60%) and Poland (55%). South Korea is missing from these figures but Education Portal puts the rate at 63%. As well as having the highest graduation rate South Korea also leads the OECD rankings for student suicide.

However, when non-UK graduates are excluded the UK graduation rate drops to 40% – this is somewhere near Gove’s 37%. But Mr Gove doesn’t omit international students from Australia’s rate which also drops to 40%. Instead, he gives Australia as an example of a country doing far better than the UK in the university graduation league. A graduation rate of 40% is the same as Japan’s and exceeds that of the USA (35% when international students are removed).

“There are schools in our own country…" Gove said,  "where many more than 50 per cent of students will go on to higher education even though many more than 50 per cent of the students arrived at or below the national level of expectation…”

Assuming that he’s referring to pupils starting Uni this September, then his data must be based on how many pupils began secondary school in 2005. The 2005 Key Stage 2 SAT results show that any secondary school where the 2005 intake matched the KS2 spread of attainment would have:

English: 27% high attainers, 52% middle attainers, 21% low attainers

Maths: 31% high attainers, 44% middle attainers, 25% low attainers.

While it’s correct to say more than 50% of pupils arrived at or BELOW the national level of expectation, it is equally correct to say that more than 50% arrived at or ABOVE the expected level. Of course, few schools have an intake which matches the spread of attainment exactly. However, these two statements are likely to be true for any school where the intake is evenly spread and the proportion of middle attainers is around 50%. This makes Mr Gove’s statement meaningless.

Mr Gove followed this by saying it was “fatalistic” not to expect all schools to be “that good” and send more than half off the university. However, it’s not “fatalistic” to say that a school with an intake heavily skewed towards the bottom end is unlikely to send 50% of its cohort to higher education. He would do well to remember the findings of the Education Endowment Foundation in 2011 – many “under-performing” schools were actually doing a good job in difficult circumstances.

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Patrick Hadley's picture
Thu, 15/11/2012 - 21:17

"There are schools in our own country…” Gove said, ”where many more than 50 per cent of students will go on to higher education even though many more than 50 per cent of the students arrived at or below the national level of expectation."

Thank you for pointing out the "at or below" nonsense. If a large number of students are at the national level of expectation then you cannot simply lump them in with those who are below. Surely Gove must realise that his use of statistics is ridiculous. Who is he trying to kid? Are any of his supporters concerned about what seems to be an attempt to mislead them?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 16/11/2012 - 08:13

Thanks, Patrick. I can't believe that the remark ended up being quoted in the Telegraph. But on second thoughts, the Telegraph usually just churn out Gove's comments without reflecting on them. The DT was one of the papers who cited the flawed PISA results for the UK to maintain the fiction (not upheld by other international tests) that UK is "plummeting" down league tables.

There are ten examples of the DfE giving misleading information in the thread below. The inaccurate graduation rates and the "at or below" statement spouted by Gove in the speech above can be added to that list:

James Blythe's picture
Fri, 16/11/2012 - 08:13


Sally Davenport's picture
Fri, 16/11/2012 - 09:28

Is it Shifty Shades of Grey Statistics by Michael Gove?

James Blythe's picture
Fri, 16/11/2012 - 14:59

Sales of 5.3m in print and ebook drive EL James's 'spankbuster' past the Highway Code and Dan Brown

Literature lovers around the world have released a collective gasp, or perhaps a groan, at the news that the publishing phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey has become the bestselling book in British history. The erotic novel has sold in excess of 5.3m copies in print and ebook – more than The Highway Code or Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 16/11/2012 - 16:29

I think anyone buying "Shifty Shades of Grey Stats" by Michael Gove thinking it was the fourth instalment in the series is going to be rather disappointed.

James Blythe's picture
Sat, 17/11/2012 - 07:27

What a spanking response!

Presumably they would only be disappointed if they were habitual readers of 'spankbusters'

Spankers rather than spankees or non spankers at all, as it were.

By the way, did you know that, on a racing or cruising yacht, a spanker is an additional headsail set beside and to leeward of a spinnaker when running downwind?

Neither did I.

I wonder how many nautical enthusiasts have innocently purchased 'Fifty Shades of Grey' also.

Sally Davenport's picture
Sat, 17/11/2012 - 08:33

Sorry I miss-spelt Shifty.

James Blythe's picture
Sat, 17/11/2012 - 09:51

Easily done. Nifty it is, then.

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