Imagine a country where ‘properly’ doesn't mean 'correctly' and where 514=1000. It’s England 2015

Janet Downs's picture

I want you to imagine a country. Where 1 in 3 young people left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly.’

This was the vision which Education Secretary Nicky Morgan conjured up in her speech to the Tory Conference yesterday. At least she’s being more cautious than last year when she claimed 1 in 3 pupils had left primary school illiterate and innumerate in 2010. Her statement attracted criticism from the UK Statistics watchdog who said an inability to reach Level 4 did not mean pupils couldn’t read, write or do sums*.

She’s added the word ‘properly’.

But what does ‘properly’ mean? According the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘properly’ means ‘correctly, or in a satisfactory way’. Level 3 readers read ‘a range of texts fluently and accurately’; Level 3 writers use punctuation ‘accurately’ and ‘different forms of writing…appropriately’; Level 3 mathematicians can multiply and divide whole numbers and use simple fractions. But, according to Morgan, such ability does not show work done ‘correctly, or in a satisfactory way’.

Morgan followed her imaginings with a roll-call of Coalition achievements. These included:

1000 failing schools transformed under the leadership of strong sponsors.’

The word ‘failing’ presumably means schools judged Inadequate. But figures obtained by Henry Stewart’s Freedom of Information request reveal that just 514 sponsored academies had predecessor schools judged Inadequate. 514 does not equal 1000. And as only 117 of these had been inspected since becoming sponsored academies, it’s a bit of a stretch to say they have all been ‘transformed’. The figures reveal the opposite – as Henry explains here, schools are more likely to remain Inadequate if they are sponsored academies than if they are maintained schools.

120,000 more six year olds on track to become confident readers thanks to our focus on phonics, and record numbers of 11 year olds mastering the 3Rs.’

But the ‘focus on phonics’ began before the introduction of the phonics screening check or the earlier matched-funding scheme for synthetic phonics resources. And when Morgan talks about ‘record numbers of 11 year-olds mastering the 3Rs’ she forgets that comparisons aren’t possible for years before 2012 because of changes to Key Stage 2 tests. In any case, the 11 year-olds taking Sats in 2015 would have started in Reception in 2008/9. They would have been learning to read, write and do maths before the Coalition came to power.

We saw how that [sponsored academies] policy allowed inspirational heads like Sir Michael Wilshaw and Dame Sally Coates to turn schools which had been failing for decades, into beacons of educational excellence.’

It’s quite difficult to understand how Sir Michael turned round Mossbourne when it was a brand-new school built on the site of a school closed several years before. And Dame Sally Coates’s Burlington Danes School came out of Special Measures before it became an ARK academy. Not 'failing' then but 'satisfactory and improving' (see here for more details).

Imagine a world where Education Secretaries didn’t misuse statistics, didn’t use vague words such as ‘properly’ and didn’t rewrite history. That world seems a long way off.

CORRECTION 8 October. I originally misquoted the UK Stats Watchdog as saying an inability to reach Level 3 didn't mean those children couldn't read, write or do sums. It should, of course, have been an inability to reach Level 4. Thanks Terry Wrigley for pointing this out and thanks Henry for putting it right.

ADDENDUM 8 October. Nicky Morgan's '1 in 3' figure relates to 2010 which she claims demonstrates the 'scandal' of Labour's education legacy.

In 2010, 73% of children reached Level 4 in English (writing and reading) and Maths. That means 27% didn't. It's not quite '1 in 3' (Morgan's inflated that as well) but '1 in 3' makes a better soundbite than '27 in a hundred'.

According to Government figures for 2010, 7% of pupils failed to reach Level 3 in English writing, reading and Maths. That means 93% could read, write and do sums to a 'satisfactory' level according to the dictionary definition of 'properly'. The Government figures contained a warning:

'National Curriculum tests are a measurement of achievement against the precise'attainment targets of the National Curriculum rather than any generalised concept of ability in any of the subject areas.' (My emphasis) Morgan's ignored this and used the tests to judge 'ability' thereby demonstrating poor comprehension as well as poor grasp of statistics.

*See letter from Sir Andrew Dilnot, UK Statistics Authority, to Nicky Morgan, 18 December 2014, downloadable here.

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Patrick Hadley's picture
Wed, 07/10/2015 - 13:29

Thank you Janet for pointing out Nicky Morgan's lies.

Can we hope that Lucy Powell, the new shadow education secretary, will rebut them in detail?

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 07/10/2015 - 13:51


Maybe 'failing' means below floor standard.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 07/10/2015 - 17:02

Barry - you could be right. 'Failing' is one of those words which can be interpreted in different ways. But I wasn't sure I'd be able to find robust data for the 'below-floor failing' quickly without looking at each individual sponsored academy to discover whether its predecessor school had been below the floor. In any case, the EEF found a few years ago that many below-floor schools were actually doing a good job.

I realise that would not be likely to cut much ice with the DfE. The Education and Adoption Bill will ignore Ofsted reports for any school deemed 'coasting'.

Perhaps a Freedom of Information request will settle the questions:

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 07/10/2015 - 17:14

FoI request on its way.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 07/10/2015 - 17:21

Full Fact has checked Cameron's conference speech here. Nothing checked about education but, among other things, social mobility and children with smart phones v children living with father.

Guest's picture
Wed, 07/10/2015 - 21:57

Looking at the data 80% of children achieved a L4 in both reading, writing and mathematics. Where does the figure of 1 in 3 pupils not achieving this level come from? ( I understand not achieving L4 does not make you illiterate and innumerate).

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/10/2015 - 07:17

The '1 in 3' figure dates back to 2010. That's what Morgan was referring to - the 'scandal' of the legacy she claims was left by Labour. This is what she said about her imaginary land:

'That country isn’t some far away land, it was this country and the education system we inherited in 2010 and, yes, it was a scandal, it was an outrage and it was wrong.'

In 2010, 73% of children reached Level 4. That means 27% didn't. It's not quite '1 in 3' (Morgan's inflated that as well) but '1 in 3' makes a better sound bite than '27 in a hundred'.

I think I'd better put an addendum on the article as I haven't made it clear.

Guest's picture
Sat, 10/10/2015 - 08:02

In 2010 80% achieved L4 or above in English and the same for Maths. 73% achieved both. Therefore the claim that 33% are illiterate and innumerate is even weaker . Some children are obviously stronger in one subject than another.
The other thing I have read in the footnotes is that you cannot compare data prior to 2011 to that afterwards. Nicky Morgan does.

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