Education ministers tell fibs to Tory conference

Henry Stewart's picture
Okay, that isn't exactly news. As we've noted before, the previous Secretary of State had a very loose relationship with facts and even the Telegraph described him as Mr Sloppy. But it is a bit sad to find Nicky Morgan, and one of her junior ministers, continuing his track record:

Nicky Morgan today stated "13 years of Labour… and 1 in every third child finished primary school unable to read, write or add up."
Junior Education Minister Sam Gyimah: [In 2010] "One third of students left primary school unable to read, write or add up"

Now there was some good stuff in Nicky Morgan's speech. Especially welcome, and let's hope she means it, was her commitment to reduce teacher workloads. So it is a pity she felt the need to make a claim like this that simply is not true. A quick check of the DfE's own research produces the following stats for 2010:

83% of children achieved level 4 in Reading,
71% achieved level 4 in Writing
79% achieved level 4 in Maths.

Note that both speakers used "or", making the claim that one third of students could neither read, write or add up. It seems clear that the statements give the impression that one third could do none of these. Now 86% got Level 4 in Maths or English, so the number that didn't get level 4 in Reading, Writing or Maths was at most 14%.

But the claims were not that children did not achieve Level 4, but that they could not read, write or add up suggesting they had learnt very little at primary school. Level 4 Maths goes a long way beyond being able to add up. I would suggest that a child not able to add up would be one who was not able to reach level 3. The same DfE spread-sheet finds that 94% of children in 2010 achieved at least this level. So it would be fair to say that at most 6% left primary school unable to add up.

Similarly a child achieving level 3 in Reading would certainly be below the expected reading age at 11 but would be able to read. 93% of children achieved at least level 3 in 2010.

I have submitted an FoI request to ask how these statements can be justified. I await the response with interest.

(I presume what both ministers were trying to say was that one third of students did not achieve all three, that one third failed to get Level 4 in one of the three subjects. But this is not what they said, and this is the department that continually calls for rigour.)

Note: Sam Gyimah also claimed that "Children educated during the Labour years the OECD said were the most innumerate or illiterate in the developed world". I presume he is referring to the 2013 OECD research. England's performance was not impressive but it was ahead of Spain, Italy and the United States in numeracy. So Sam's statement was again a bit of a fib.
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Michele -Lowe's picture
Wed, 01/10/2014 - 07:35

If you do get a response to your FoI request, please post it. It would be very interesting to see what the DfE says.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/10/2014 - 08:06

Once again Tory politicians have been caught out using misleading stats. Not that the Tory faithful will be bothered - 'England plummeting down league tables' has been a favourite theme since Gove ignored OECD warnings not to compare the flawed PISA results for the UK in 2000 with those of 2009.

It's true that the OECD Adult Skills Survey found English/Northern Irish 16-24 year-olds doing poorly among the 23 countries tested. This is hardly the entire 'developed world' - 7 OECD countries, for example, didn't take the test including four (Chile, Israel, Mexico and Portugal) which did worse than the UK in the triennial PISA tests.

And Tory politicians seemed to have missed another OECD warning: the results of the Adult Skills Survey should be used with caution because of the sampling problems.

These 'sampling problems' included significant non-response when countries didn't survey enough people to make the results reliable. These included England and Northern Ireland. Worse, England and Northern Ireland were the only two countries which didn't complete all of the required Non-Response Bias Analyses. But the OECD still stood by its results although it was sufficiently concerned to issue a warning: the technical notes urged caution because the analysis was “based on assumptions”.

But caution can be ignored when there are political points to be made.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/10/2014 - 08:22

Oh dear - Tory politicians again demonstrate their lack of comprehension. The National Curriculum descriptors in 2010 made it clear that pupils attaining Level 3 in reading could read a range of texts fluently, accurately and independently. Pupils reaching Level 3 in writing can write with joined, legible handwriting and express their thoughts using basic punctuation accurately and 'usually accurate' spelling. Maths was split into categories including 'Using and applying mathematics'. Level 3 in these categories shows that pupils are able to more than 'add up'.

The Level Descriptors published in February 2010 (before the last election) are here.

Henry Stewart's picture
Wed, 01/10/2014 - 21:51

Thanks for that, Janet. I was thinking of you as I wrote this. I know you've written in the past to point out that not getting Level 4 is not the same as not being able to read.

Guest's picture
Thu, 02/10/2014 - 18:03

Anyone currently working in year 7 secondary schools in English and Maths would not share you confidence in Level 3 descriptions you refer to.
Unfortunately a child with a level 3 at the end of primary really does struggle to read, write and understand basic maths, to deny this will only deny these children the remedial action they need.

Arthur Harada's picture
Wed, 01/10/2014 - 16:44

Yep,yet another fox's paw by the SofS.
On a previous occasion I mentioned Nicky wrote to me, via one of her underlings, to inform me the DfE had "appointed eight new Policy Fellows who are high caliber (sic) professionals from a range of external sectors who will work with specific policy-making divisions and the Strategy Unit. They will inject fresh skills,experience and innovative thinking into the department's policy making and delivery challenges." Obviously, Nicky has hired Fellows weak on statistical analysis. Par for the DfE and Ofsted for that matter.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 02/10/2014 - 15:52

Private Eye's picked up another DfE disregard for stats in today's edition. It cited a 'recent mail-out to the Tory Party faithful' which repeated stats from an earlier DfE press release which had said, "Eighty thousand more children than five years ago will start secondary school this year secure in the basics."

But Private Eye pointed out that the DfE's statistical first release containing the 2014 Sat results contained a warning: the KS2 writing tests changed fundamentally in 2012 and 'Comparisons with data for earlier years for any indicators including writing will not be comparable.'

Didn't stop schools minister Nick Gibb from ignoring the warning. And he, according to SoS Nicky Morgan, is 'so good they appointed him twice'.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Thu, 02/10/2014 - 22:44


Nicky Morgan said that one third of children "could not read write or add up".

Janet pointed out two big problems with that statement:

She did not say "struggle". There is a huge difference between saying that someone "cannot read or write" and saying that they "struggle with reading and writing", and Nicky Morgan should know that difference. If she had used the word "struggle" she would still have been able to make a valid point about the importance of improving standards in primary schools.

Secondly the figure of "one third" in the category is a very inaccurate and misleading.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/10/2014 - 08:02

Patrick - thanks for pointing out that 'struggle with reading and writing' does not mean 'unable to read and write'. Ignorant politicians and journalists often assume (probably deliberately so) that anything below Level 4 (or GCSE Grade C) means illiteracy and innumeracy.

It does not follow, of course, that pupils below Level 4 shouldn't receive appropriate help if they need it. But to say they can't read, write or add up is not only inaccurate but insulting.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 03/10/2014 - 11:36

Guest - The problem with your approach is that all knowledge, skills and aptitudes are continuously variable. Any valid effort to measure them will result in a Bell Curve Normal distribution. If it doesn't then you really need to worry about what is going on.

Despite the best efforts of Secretaries of State for Education and the teachers forced to do their bidding, there is no place on the Bell Curve of SATs raw marks where you can draw valid boundaries that divide the literate from the illiterate.

If you define 'acceptable literacy' differently you will get different boundaries but there will be no way of deciding which are right, which is what you are trying to do.

So Henry and Janet are right. This is just more disgraceful Tory politicking. Unfortunately Labour does this sort of thing too.

Education needs to be above politics as has been frequently argued on this site.

Maggie D's picture
Sun, 05/10/2014 - 20:13

"If you define ‘acceptable literacy’ differently you will get different boundaries but there will be no way of deciding which are right, which is what you are trying to do -"

In which case there is no valid reason to state that a child who only achieves a L3 for reading 'can read'. The boundary for L3 is as fuzzy as any other.

I completely agree with 'guest' that Y7s with L3 in secondary school are not able to read sufficiently competently to cope with the demands of the secondary curriculum. I spent the last 10 years of my working life working with such children. Not only were they not sufficiently competent to cope with the reading requirements of the curriculum but they would be unable to cope with the reading requirements of the adult world (we are teaching children lifelong skills, aren't we? Not just what will get them through exams.)

Having said that, I do agree that Ms Morgan's claim of 1 in 3 children unable to read is wildly inflated figure. 1 in 5 is more realistic. Turning a blind eye to the reality of children's poor literacy for the sake of making political points does children no favours.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 08:37

Maggie D - you're right that Nicky Morgan's claim that 1 in 3 children are unable to read, write and add up is political point making. The same propaganda spews out when GCSE results are published - some politicians and parts of the media push forward the falsehood that any pupil who fails to get GCSE C in English and Maths can't read, write or do sums. Michael Gove defined it as being 'without the basics'.

Leave aside the point that GCSE C was once a sign of above-average attainment, Level One qualifications (GCSE G and above or equivalent) are a sign of functional literacy and numeracy. That means anyone with Level One qualifications has sufficient skills to cope with everyday life and basic employment.

That's not to say efforts shouldn't be made to progress from Level One to Level Two and beyond - but to say, as politicians and the media do - that anyone whose qualifications are less than Level Two is illiterate, innumerate and, worse, a member of an 'underclass', demeans those who only hold Level One qualifications.

But the 'underclass' has a vote and perhaps won't take kindly to being portrayed as some kind of untermensch.

Maggie D's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 13:24

I'd like to know, Janet, if you are trusting statements such as 'Level one qualifications...are a sign of functional numeracy and literacy' on the strength of them being stated to be such by officialdom or 'experts' or if you say this from working with large numbers of 'Level one qualified' people on the ground?

Were I still working (now retired) I would have challenged you to come and listen to a selection of L3 Y7s actually reading from a straightforward piece of text; a subject resource sheet perhaps. You would soon find that L3 in English at the end of KS2 comes nowhere near to 'functional literacy'

You can bandy figures around all you like, and quibble over what actually constitutes 'reading', but it does not alter the fact that a very significant number of children leave primary school with very poor reading skills. I expected to have to work with 25 -30 'new' children (from an intake of 140 -150) every year whose reading skills were inadequate for their secondary education (and life).

The last comment in my previous post was badly worded. It seems to me that you are *all* out to score political points at the expense of children who desperately need help.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 14:11

Maggie - the definition of Level One functional literacy and numeracy comes from, among others, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Office of National Statistics. Sheffield University (2010) did some research into functional literacy and numeracy in which they found that about 17% of young people age 16-19 had poorer literacy 'than is needed for full participation in today’s society.' But the Sheffield academics gave a warning: literacy has been defined by “experts” based on what they think other people should be able to do rather than on surveys about what people actually need to be able to do for their own purposes.

That's not to say, of course, that some people struggle with reading - I've never said they do not. But, as Roger pointed out, Level 3 is supposed to show ‘Pupils read a range of texts fluently and accurately’. If they turn up at secondary school with Level 3 but cannot 'read a range of texts fluently and accurately' then this points to poor marking of Sat tests.

That said, I spent much of my teaching career preparing Sets 3 and 4 for CSE English/English Literature then GCSE English/English Literature. My pupils, especially Set 4, did indeed struggle with reading. But it would have been inaccurate to say they could not read or write.

The Sheffield report can be downloaded here.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 12:19

Maggie D - This is how L3 Reading is defined in the 2010 National Curriculum Levels descriptors.

'Pupils read a range of texts fluently and accurately'
They read independently using strategies appropriately to establish meaning
In response to fiction and non-fiction in a range of modes, they show understanding of the main points and express preferences.
They use their knowledge of the alphabet and of search techniques to locate sources and find information.'

That is NOT a definition of a 'non reader'. What are the 'demands of the secondary curriculum' that you claim such a child would be unable to meet? Attainment in the secondary curriculum is currently assessed at the end of KS4 by GCSE in terms of grades A*-G. Your statement says a lot about what you think the secondary curriculum is about and who it is for.

As a science teacher since 1971 I can tell you for certain that a child with such reading skills at age 11 would potentially be able to access the secondary science curriculum at all levels up to A* if taught appropriately. Any limiting factors would be related to conceptual cognitive development, not reading ability. In fact, I am personally acquainted with large numbers of such comprehensive school pupils who went on to top universities, got good degrees and now hold high level professional responsibilities. In fact some of these would have been in your 'bottom 20 per cent' category at the end of Y6.

What aspects of the 'reading requirements of the modern world' would such a child be potentially unable to meet? I repeat again what such a child can do.

'Pupils read a range of texts fluently and accurately'
They read independently using strategies appropriately to establish meaning
In response to fiction and non-fiction in a range of modes, they show understanding of the main points and express preferences.'

Of course no-one should 'turn a blind eye' to poor literacy but erecting arbitrary hurdles with evidence-free statements that children below them 'can't read' is frankly preposterous.

The aim of a good school should be to meet the development needs of every child on a equal basis in terms of access to resources and teacher time and expertise. In my view there is no place in such a culture for the views you express.

Guest's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 12:40

You have fallen into the trap of believing the level 3 descriptors and with no evidence at all assuming children at level 3 can demonstrate the descriptions.
Unfortunately the truth is very different - a child entering secondary can barely read - our tests indicate reading ages of around 7, they cannot read independently, never mind write in a meaningful way. This means they cannot access the curriculum you would prefer. There main, and perhaps only, focus has to be giving them the tools to read and write at a level which enables them to take science etc. in reality level 3 maths is equally weak, number bonds not understood, no column addition or subtraction.
Bell curves and cognitive ability are great to describe problems and solutions, however continuing to bury your head in the sand and claiming all is good helps no-one.

Guest's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 12:42

Their not there.
Reading refers to level 3 readers only.

Maggie D's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 13:26

Well said, guest!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 14:27

Guest - if pupils are entering secondary school with Level 3 and it turns out they haven't got Level 3 then something is seriously wrong with Sat marking or, worse, it suggests there has been some strange goings-on at the primary schools which should be investigated.

Level 2 indicates a reading age of 7 and, yes, a pupil at Level 2 would indeed struggle at secondary school. But, as I've pointed out before, struggling with reading is not the same as being completely unable to read which is what the ministers said.

Pointing this out is not, as you say, burying 'head in sand'. Neither is it 'claiming all is good'.

The Level Descriptors for Number and Algebra (see page 30 here) show that Level 3 pupils can 'add and subtract numbers with two digits mentally and numbers with three digits using written methods.' The should be be able to 'solve whole-number problems involving multiplication or division including those that give rise to remainders. They use simple fractions...'

Again, if you find Level 3 pupils entering secondary school cannot do these then I would suggest you ask the Standards and Testing Agency to investigate.

Maggie D's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 15:47

I have always thought there is something seriously wrong with the SATs marking when I have compared the actual capabilities of L3 children against the L3 descriptors.

The descriptors in themselves are sometime ludicrous. How on earth can one judge from a written exam that a child can 'read a range of texts fluently and accurately'? You'd have to give them a range of texts and listen to them reading them to be able to judge that one.

I can only conclude that your experience of L3 children is totally different from that of mine and 'guests'.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 07/10/2014 - 06:43

Maggie D - Key Stage 2 SATS comprise tests in reading, writing and maths. It is, therefore, possible to test reading by, er, reading.

I am actually very critical of SATS - they tell teachers nothing they don't already know. Their sole purpose is to judge schools and this may be the reason why the results don't appear to tally with reality when pupils reach secondary school.

As I said to Guest, if you are concerned about the accuracy of SAT results, ask the Standards and Testing Agency to investigate.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 13:36

Guest - If you follow my posts you will know that I do not argue that 'all is good' and 'bury my head in the sand'. The exact opposite in fact - I argue that standards
are slipping because of the perverse incentives that arise from the marketization of the school system. I retired in 2003. My comments about the secondary potential of Y6 pupils with L3 applies mainly to the 1990s. A good job in my school, as two thirds of our pupils at that time entered our school with L3's or less, yet lots of our pupils progressed to good degrees in top universities, many with L3s in Y6.

If what you say about the real attainment of pupils with L3 is true then this must also be true of all the levels claimed by SATs results. If this is true then the whole of the secondary school progress and attainment 'dashboard' data must also be worthless. As Ofsted judgements are based on such data then they must be worthless too.

I am ready to believe this, I assure you. But you/we do need the evidence.

Guest's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 15:05

Roger - I do generally agree with a lot of your posts , however on this you are not correct.
My first thought is what on earth were the primary schools doing in your area that allowed their pupils to leave at such a low basic level after 7 years at school?
Secondly you ask for evidence, and by the way I am only talking about level 3 pupils and not those achieving above, that level 3 pupils are not at the level where they can "read a range of texts fluently, accurately and independently" . In our lowest set, in which we are having to go through phonic sounding out again - half of the children have a 3A level, the rest below, in reading but cannot read Horrid Henry, let alone write about it. Should these children be expected to do French and Spanish, physics, history etc. Our school will get these children into a much better position in the coming months and years.
So when any SoS makes a statement regarding the illiteracy and/or lack of mathematically skills of a significant number of our wonderful children we don't jump up and down trying to prove them wrong - we try to fix the actual significant problem.
You are well informed Roger - speak to a year 7 English and maths teacher!

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 06/10/2014 - 17:39

But Guest, it is the same SoS who is bemoaning poor standards at the end of KS2, who is responsible for the SATs Levels Attainment descriptors that you and Maggie D are claiming have no basis in reality. What are we to make of that?

I don't know how to reconcile these contradictions. What I will say about our 1990s Y7 intakes is that the pressure on schools and heads to raise the proportion of L4s above the new floor targets was yet to reach the later and current levels of hysteria and consequent claims of school and system improvement.

It seems to me to be a classic case of government and market pressure improving market driving indicators (SATs results), but are these improvements real in the experience of teachers like yourselves?

I note no-one seems keen to explore the implications for the whole complex construction of pupil and school progress measures that is driving the experience of teachers and pupils in our secondary schools. Could it be a house of cards?

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