Education Secretary ignores Watchdog’s letter criticising her literacy and numeracy claims

Janet Downs's picture
The Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has treated the UK Stats Watchdog's criticism of her use of literacy statistics with disdain. The Watchdog said Morgan’s statement to the Tory Conference that under Labour ‘1 in every third child finished primary school unable to read, write or add up’ was misleading. It was inaccurate to claim Year 6 pupils who didn’t reach Level 4 in SATS were illiterate and innumerate, Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said.

But Sir Andrew’s condemnation didn’t stop Morgan repeating the claim in the Commons yesterday:

...under the previous Labour Government one in three of our young people were leaving primary school unable to read and write. That is a shocking statistic.'

What's 'shocking' is that the Education Secretary continues to use flawed statistics when the Stats Watchdog wrote to Morgan saying they were unsound. But the Department for Education has form – using flawed PISA data to make misleading comparisons; hyping up the performance of sponsored academies; using evidence that doesn’t exist (see here and here); hiding biased commentary under trusted statistics and thinking surveys from Premier Inn and UK TV Gold were reliable evidence.

Nicky Morgan may be playing good cop to Gove's bad cop, but she's using the same dubious tactics - repeating dodgy data enough times for it to become 'truth'.

Thanks to Laura McInerney (@miss_mcinerney) for alerting me to Morgan’s repeated use of the dodgy stat. Ms McInerney is Deputy Editor of Academies Week which reported the debate here.

ADDENDUM 11 December 2014 14.45

The dodgy statement above wasn’t the only example of tricky statistics used by Morgan. She said ‘‘100,000 more six-year-olds are now on track to become confident readers because of our focus on phonics’. But a report commissioned by her department found the majority of schools were using other methods in addition to phonics. It appears Morgan doesn't just ignore letters from the UK Stats Watchdog but also hasn't read DfE-commissioned reports.

She also said the number of pupils taking ‘core academic GCSEs’ was up by 60% since 2009-10. But we don’t know whether ‘up by 60%’ is good or not unless we know the starting figure. What we do know, thanks to DfE data, is that 38.7% of pupils took GCSEs for all subject areas of the EBacc in 2013/14. This was up from 35.5% the year before. 23.9% of pupils achieved the EBacc in 2013/14. But the number crunchers warned it was not possible to compare GCSE results for 2013/14 with earlier years because of changes in ‘methodology, examinations and behaviour.' Perhaps it'll only be a matter of time before Government ministers ignore that warning as well.

The rise in entries for EBacc subjects was accompanied by a decrease (43%) of entries for non-EBacc subjects. At the same time, entries for single sciences (biology, chemistry, physics) were also down.
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R Woodward's picture
Thu, 11/12/2014 - 13:10

`One in every third child` ? It appears that our Education Secretary could do with brushing up her Literacy skills

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/12/2014 - 14:00

R Woodward - yes, the clumsy sentence does actually appear in her Conference speech. I thought at first it might have been misreported. I was wrong. And she again used international test data to say England had 'stagnated' when the rest of the world had 'moved on'.

Not quite. She didn't tell Conference that although English 15 year-olds scores in PISA remained constant, they were at the OECD average in Reading and Maths, and ABOVE average in Science.

She also ignored more favourable international test results from TIMSS 2011 and PIRLS 2011 (see faqs above)

But such good news doesn't fit the picture Gove, and now Morgan, want to portray - one in which England's education system is dire and can only be saved by the radical reform pushed through by Gove and supported by his more softly-spoken replacement.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/12/2014 - 13:58

It's not just Nicky Morgan who has a tenuous grasp on stats and evidence. Nick Gibb repeated his unconditional support for synthetic phonics in a written answer yesterday:

'Our new English curriculum places a renewed focus on the requirement for pupils to learn to read through systematic synthetic phonics, as evidence shows this is the most effective approach to early reading.'

But the evidence shows any method of teaching phonics is effective as long as it's systematic. And a recent report commissioned by the DfE found teachers were combining phonics with other methods.

But Gibb continues to promote synthetic phonics which has proved highly profitable for DfE approved publishers of synthetic phonics materials and training.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Fri, 19/12/2014 - 21:02

Sir Andrew Dilnot has again rebuked Nicky Morgan for this gross misuse of statistics.

BBC article:
"The education secretary has been criticised by a statistics watchdog for claiming that one in three pupils left primary school unable to read or write under Labour.

UK Statistics Authority chairman Sir Andrew Dilnot told Nicky Morgan she should "reconsider" her comments.

He said she might need to correct the parliamentary record.

It was the second time Sir Andrew has rebuked ministers over the claim, based on 11-year-olds' national test results.

On December 10 in the Commons, Ms Morgan told the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, "he ought to be thinking about the fact that under the previous Labour government one in three of our young people were leaving primary school unable to read and write".

She added that it was a "shocking statistic".

'Read fluently'
In tests taken in England in May 2010, 83% of pupils were assessed at Key Stage 2 as reaching at least level four - the expected level at age 11 - in reading, 71% in writing, and 79% in mathematics.

Mrs Morgan's claim, which was made in the House of Commons, was apparently based on figures showing 64% of pupils in England achieved level four or above in all three of reading, writing and maths.

But referring to the published definitions of the levels, Sir Andrew said children who reached Level 3 were able to "read a range of texts fluently and accurately".

They are also able to write in a way that is "often organised, imaginative and clear" and they can "add and subtract numbers with two digits mentally and numbers with three digits using written methods".

He added that in tests taken in May 2010, 91% of pupils were assessed as reaching level three or above at Key Stage 2 in reading, 93% in writing, and 93% in mathematics.

Sir Andrew told the education secretary: "I think that it would be appropriate for you to reconsider these comments. You may also wish to take advice on whether the official parliamentary record should be corrected."

Ms Morgan's comments came less than a week after Sir Andrew had criticised the use of the statistic, included in speeches to the Conservative Party conference." End of Quote

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 20/12/2014 - 09:22

Patrick - thanks for letting us know that Morgan had been rebuked a second time by the UK Statistics Watchdog for repeating misleading stats. I'd missed that.

The link you provided didn't go to the letter from Sir Andrew Dilnot so I've removed it. However, the letter can be downloaded from FullFact (click on 'rebuked').

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