Keeping falsehoods alive - ex-minister repeats sham statistic on QT

Janet Downs's picture
Everyone knows the figures, boomed Lord Heseltine on Question Time* last Thursday, 20% of pupils leaving primary schools are ‘by normal modern standards illiterate and innumerate’.

Lord Heseltine is speaking falsely. He’s followed the example of Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and claimed pupils who don’t reach Level 4 in Key Stage 2 Sats can’t read and write. Morgan’s been rapped over the knuckles, not once but twice, by the UK Statistics Watchdog, Sir Andrew Dilnot, for making this claim. It isn’t true.

Morgan tried to water down her statement by adding the vague word, ‘properly’. Prime Minister David Cameron did the same thing in his speech at Kingsmead School.

The noble Lord discarded ‘properly’ and added ‘by normal modern standards’.

But, to repeat, a child reaching Level 3 can read and write. The Statistics Watchdog looked at published level descriptors and found children with Level 3 could ‘read a range of texts fluently and accurately’. They could produce written work that was ‘often organised, imaginative and clear’ and "add and subtract numbers with two digits mentally and numbers with three digits using written methods".

Someone who can ‘read a range of texts fluently and accurately’ is not illiterate.


Someone who can ‘add and subtract numbers with two digits mentally and numbers with three digits using written methods’ is not innumerate.


To claim otherwise is to keep alive a falsehood.

What other lies are being perpetuated?

First, the zombie statistic that the UK fell down education league tables under Labour. This is not true. Yet Morgan told the Telegraph ‘the education system the Tories inherited was “chaotic, with Britain plummeting”’ on 1 February.

Second, the claim sponsored academies improve faster than other schools. This is a tricky one. The rate of improvement in sponsored academies is measured from a lower base so would be higher than improvement measured from a higher base. The Department of Education appears to have grasped this at last. A DfE source told the Guardian, 'sponsored academies would improve faster because they had further to go’.

Perhaps the source should inform the Minister for School Reform, Nick Gibb, who told the Today programme on 2 February: ‘Primary [sponsored academies]…have seen their reading, writing and maths results improve at double the rate of local authority schools.’ But as Warwick Mansell’s analysis shows: ‘when schools with the same starting points in 2013 are compared, sponsored academies fared worse than a comparison group of primaries in 2014’. This analysis confirms earlier number crunching by LSN’s Henry Stewart.

Third, fourth, fifth… See my critique of Cameron’s recent speech at Kingsmead School – a blatant piece of electioneering which may have flouted the requirement for schools to present controversial subjects such as politics in an even-handed way.

Perhaps it’s time to stop calling these falsehoods by euphemisms such as ‘misleading’, ‘misrepresentation’ or ‘misunderstanding’. Call them what they are – lies.

*Question Time is available here. Lord Heseltine's claim is about 41 minutes into the programme.

UPDATE 22 February 2015 13.53. Just found a Gove speech in which he said a 'fifth' of primary school pupils left school without reaching the 'basic' level.

A fifth isn't a third.

He also said two-fifths of 16 year-olds didn't reach the 'basic' level in English and Maths because they didn't get a C grade. But 'basic' is defined by the Business and Skills Department, the Office of National Statistics and exam boards as Level One - that is GCSE grades D-G.

It appears Gove and other politicians are being both inaccurate and misleading when they raise the level of 'basic'.

It also appears that the ability of some politicians to do sums is rather low. Private Eye (20 February 2015) describes how Conservative MP Nadine Dorries told BBC's Daily Politics on 2 February that the Tories were doing 'incredibly well' at improving Ofsted judgements. The presenter said 23% of secondary schools being less than good was 'a very high number' - one in four schools.

But it was worse five years ago, Dorries replied. It was 'one in seven'.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 21/02/2015 - 15:16

Janet - Heseltine is not stupid and should know better. A child does not suddenly progress from being illiterate and innumerate to being 'fully up to modern standards' at the point of progressing from L3 to L4. Any more than pupils with a C GCSE grade in maths are likely to have undergone a Damascus-type conversion to being more mathematically able 'by modern standards' than a pupil with grade D. In fact if the latter has been taught properly and the former just drilled to get a C, the reverse is more likely to be the case.

However, Sponsored Academies 'improved faster' than LA schools not just because of Henry's 'starting from a lower base factor', but also because large numbers of them gamed the curriculum and kept what they were up to secret, (shielded from FOI) with the connivance of the Labour government.

See Part 3 of 'Learning Matters' for the evidence.

You know I disagree with you about the PISA evidence. I argue in 'Learning Matters' that the decline in standards is real, but is caused by the perverse effects of marketisation on methods of teaching and learning.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 21/02/2015 - 15:41

Roger - I know we've discussed this before, but my point about UKs position in international league tables is they don't point to a decline from 2000 as measured by PISA league tables.

That's not to say educational standards in England haven't fallen for all the reasons you say: gaming, marketisation etc. But the quality of education - deep learning etc - is not what PISA measures.

But when the Gov't says UK pupils have fallen down PISA tables when PISA figures show they haven't, then it should be pointed out. When the Gov't used the flawed 2000 UK PISA figures and ignoring a warning by the OECD not to use them, it should be pointed out.

It's wrong to claim PISA shows the UK has declined in PISA tests when UK performance has been constant - the latest tests actually showed UK score rising slightly in maths and reading - see here for detailed analysis - just to support a particular viewpoint. There has been no UK decline in PISA.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Sun, 22/02/2015 - 12:18

Education came up again on Friday in 'Any Questions' (BBC R 4) and the panel were in Northern Ireland. The question went as follows: This evening's broadcast comes from Lumen Christi College, a grammar school which is top of the Northern Ireland league tables. Quite an achievement as we have a very successful grammar school sector here in Northern Ireland. Why are so many of the citizens of England, Scotland and Wales deprived of such excellent schools?
Leaving aside the weighted nature of the question, the response was interesting. Simon Heffer gave the ladder-out-of-poverty argument. Michelle Gildernew argued for non-selection, Ian Paisley informed the audience he had actually attended an integrated school not divided on confessional lines and Jim Gamble of Sinn Fein spoke of leaving school with a CSE in art. What really stood out to me, however, was how positive about state education the Northern Irish members of the panel were, even if they disagreed about how it is best delivered. This came as a genuine relief, as I was bracing myself for the usual brickbats about the maintained sector. Whilst they have the enormous problem of religiously-segregated schooling there, I did sense a common purpose and optimism about what they can do with education.
When I contrast this with 'Question Time' on BBC 1, I struggle to recall the last time anyone said anything good about public education in the UK. The last two times it cropped up I heard nothing to kindle hope any political party would give it the respect it's due. I too heard Heseltine thunder the misinformation about literacy and numeracy standards and my heart sank anew.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 22/02/2015 - 13:37

Michele - The Mirror followed up Heseltine's claim and said the picture was 'less drastic' than the noble Lord had said. But up popped the DfE spokesperson to defend the Government's desire for all children to leave primary able to read, write and add up 'properly' and claiming they can't do these things 'properly' if they don't reach Level 4.

But Sir Andrew Dilnot, UK Stats Watchdog, has found they can by looking at guidance published by the DfE.

The spokesperson continued:

“In 2009 a third of children were leaving primary school without reaching this basic level in reading, writing and mathematics.'

'Basic level' being Level 4 is contradicted by the fact that Level 3 can be regarded as 'basic' as Sir Andrew has said.

So it's lies confused by inaccurate, subjective obfuscation.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 22/02/2015 - 14:06

UPDATE - see main article for how what was once a 'fifth' became a 'third', another example of the slippery term 'basic, and how one Tory MP thinks 'one in seven' is worse than 'one in four'.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Sun, 22/02/2015 - 14:58

Janet. I heard the "one in seven" which is worse than "one in four" as it went out on R4. Laugh of the week. Do hope it made 'Pick of the Week'.

Interestingly, 'More or Less' picked up on it, too It might be worth emailing them the statistical mis-information and asking them to scrutinise how these figures are arrived at - if they haven't done so already. I do think, judging by some of the comments members of the public make, that the message that "state schools are rubbish" holds sway. It's so oft repeated and has been for so long, that it's accepted as a fact. If I catch yet another politician doing it, I will do so myself.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 23/02/2015 - 15:21

The false comparison using the 2000 PISA results for the UK continues. Here's the Spectator on 14 February 2015:

'Scottish 15-year-olds did marginally better than their English counterparts in the 2012 Pisa tests. But the difference between the two groups is minuscule and both have declined dramatically since Pisa first started testing in 2000.'

But we all know the OECD who run the PISA tests have said the 2000 UK PISA results should NOT be used for comparison because they were flawed. There was a relative fall in ranking in PISA between 2006 and 2009 when the number of countries taking part rose from 58 to 65 but no fall in scores. The 2012 PISA results showed a slight improvement.

It appears our Secretary of State and certain media commentators lack both comprehension and statistical skills.

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 23/02/2015 - 20:59

Janet, respectfully, I have to disagree with your statement - "It appears our Secretary of State and certain media commentators lack both comprehension and statistical skills."

The SoS is intent to spread misinformation, like her predecessor in the coalition government and the media are lazy, complicit, cowardly or believe that the public are stupid enough to swallow anything; take your pick! I believe there is a conspiracy intent on defaming teachers, damning schools and attacking the education system in a concerted effort to prepare it for privatisation. Michelle, I totally agree with you. When a statement is repeated often enough and by seemingly powerful people or institutions, how can individuals be criticised for accepting it has become such 'common currency'.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 24/02/2015 - 08:05

John - the statement was tongue-in-cheek. You're absolutely right there's been a coordinated and prolonged attempt to spread falsehoods by ministers, their minions and a complicit media. This goes right back to the 'plummeting' down league table myth deliberately spread by the DfE in 2010 despite being told not to compare the 2009 PISA results with those from 2000 because the latter were flawed.

No matter how many times I say this (and I've said it at least three times in this thread alone), it pops up again. It's like trying to slay the hydra.

So, if supplying the evidence is not enough, perhaps suggesting they're thick might go a tiny way to making them look foolish.

The tactics you describe are not just confined to England - they're worldwide in the Global Education Reform Movement. GERM denigrates state education and says it's so bad it needs reforming by allowing 'competition', 'choice' and other providers (cue salivating by big beasts like Pearson and News Corp who'd love to get some of the billions of $US spent on education and hand it to shareholders and company execs - remember, when for-profit firms get involved in education, it's not altruism, it's investment).

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.