Janet Downs's picture
This was posted by Janet Downs on behalf of Trevor Fisher who had difficulty uploading his article.

The Conservatives are running an attack strategy on Primary school results blaming Labour for alleged failures. On February 1st Nicola Morgan launched a media offensive on the 3Rs, reported on the BBC News website that day under the heading "Nicky Morgan announces 'war on illiteracy and innumeracy'". Its claims were not questioned. Key claim is that primary schools failed to teach the 3 Rs to up to a third of pupils – and this is the fault of Labour in the 1997-2010 governments. The attack has an Orwellian flavour.

The assault started at Tory conference with speeches from Secretary of State Nicky Morgan and School Minister Sam Gyimah. Gyimah claimed that “more than a third of young people were leaving school 'unable to read, write or do maths', ie at age 16. But the main attack is on primary not school leavers. Nicky Morgan in her speech (available on the Conservative web site) attacked Labour's record saying “13 years of Labour.... and 1 in every third child finished primary school unable to read, write or add up”. This was unqualified in any way.

Janet Downs (Local Schools Network) investigated, asking the UK Statistics Authority to comment. On December 4th Sir Andrew Dilnot replied giving the facts for school leavers and concluding the facts did not add up for Gyimah's claim. (Letters from Dilnot can be found here.)

He also critiqued Nicky Morgan and commented that while some children did not reach level 4, the vast majority did – the Key Stage 2 results showing that in May 2010 83% reached the level in reading, 79% in maths and 71% in writing. Dilnot copied the letter to Morgan, Gyimah, and to various civil servants.

The letter had no effect. On December 10th Morgan attacked Tristram Hunt in the Commons (Hansard col 894) saying “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”.

Sir Andrew Dilnot then wrote directly to Morgan, giving a detailed and factual study of why this statement was wrong, finishing “I think 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”. Morgan replied dismissively without taking on board the criticism, as Full Fact noted, but subsequently has qualified statements by using the word “properly” in claims on pupil attainment in primary skills. The word is meaningless.

Full Fact on December 18th 2014 commented on the letter from Dilnot, noting that 90% of pupils had “achieved level 3 or above in all the three core subjects.... this is not the picture of illiteracy Ms Morgan's words conjure up, and she should correct the record”. Ms Morgan did not correct the record.


The Tories continued with the “War on Illiterary and Innumeracy campaign”, undeterred by the lack of evidence that the problems existed. This was launched on February 1st via the Sunday Times. More importantly it was picked up by the BBC, uncritically. BBC news site that day reported Morgan threatening to put schools into “measures” if they failed to get pupils through arbitrary tests. This suggested the pupils would not be affected but schools would be. Briefings suggested that heads would be sacked, but this is not on the record – and Labour has not demanded clarification.

The following day Cameron made his big speech on education, highlighting the 3Rs issue. The PM backed both Gyimah and Morgan, stating explicitly the Gyhimah position that “We inherited a system where far too many children left school without the qualifications and skills to get on. Some of them were barely able to read and write properly”.

He offered no evidence for this, nor for the statement aligned with Morgan's position that

“We inherited a situation where one in three children left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly”. The use of the word 'properly' is meaningless, but was later defined by the DfE in a completely arbitrary way. It is also worth noting that the PM is completely oblivious to Education being a devolved responsibility. The no longer control the Celtic systems from Westminster.

Heseltine chips in.

The claim that primary schools failed to produce the results, reached the press after the BBC Question Time on 19th February. Michael Heseltine, ex Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, opened the debate by arguing that 20 per cent of children leave primary school illiterate and innumerate, making the claim

“20% of the kids coming out of primary school this year will be by normal modern standards illiterate and innumerate”. Link is here.

'Normal modern standards' is another meaningless concept, but the Daily Mirror on 20th February seemed to support it, commenting that 21% of pupils in England did not meet the target last year for reading, writing and mathematics combined - the target being Level 4. However there is no way that Level 3 is illiterate and innumerate, nor does a late developer have to hit targets at 11. Albert Einstein notably failed to do so.

The DFE told the Daily Mirror the Question Time of 19th February that the word 'properly' means 'they do not achieve Level 4 by the end of primary school'. This is shifting the goalposts, as there are four levels, but more importantly the numbers not reaching level 4 do not make one third, which is the political claim.

If Morgan goes ahead, and this should be an election issue, the targets are not ones pupils will have to meet, but will have consequences for schools. Rumours of heads being sacked followed the Morgan launch on February 1st, but have not been confirmed. What is clear is that the DfE told the Mirror on February 20th that failure had taken place, but now “thousands more children leave primary school having mastered the basics”. So why is there a need for a “War on illiteracy and innumeracy” except that there is an election coming up. With the exception of backdating the date of the Labour failure on the 3Rs to 2009, the official line from the DfE is that Blunkett's literacy and numeracy hours and other efforts failed, Labour did nothing on literacy and numeracy, but the Tories did.

Labour's failure to challenge this will backfire in the election if they do not act to correct this. More fundamentally, if politicians can made statements and are then rebuked by the official statistician and then refuse to make any public correction, how near are we to Orwellian politics?

Trevor Fisher2/3/2015
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Phil Taylor's picture
Wed, 04/03/2015 - 07:06

Thanks Trevor - comprehensive tracking of the way in which this libel has been perpetuated despite the clear evidence to the contrary from an official source.

If Labour are unwilling to challenge this big and demonstrable lie, they do not deserve our votes.

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