Schools minister Nick Gibb ‘inadvertently’ repeated the discredited claim that the UK’s position in PISA tables had fallen from 2000. This faulty assertion, as regular readers know, was based on flawed figures. The OECD, which administers PISA tests, reminded users in 2010 that UK data for 2000 shouldn’t be used for comparison.
Two years later, the UK Statistic Authority (UKSA) censured the Department for Education (DfE) for its misleading use of PISA data. Unfortunately, this reprimand hasn’t stopped ministers citing the dodgy data.
On 12 July, Gibb used the invalid figures in a Commons debate on primary school SATs. He followed this erroneous statement by claiming the UK ‘fell further still’ in reading and maths in PISA 2012.
In theory, this shouldn’t have happened. When former education secretary Nicky Morgan wrongly cited PISA 2000 last December, the DfE blamed quality assurance failure. Did DfE quality control fail again? Apparently not, UKSA tells me in an email*.
DfE statisticians had checked Gibb’s briefing material and produced a ‘second version’ with ‘correct comparisons’. For reasons unknown, Gibb took both versions into the Commons and ‘inadvertently’ used the uncorrected first draft. Gibb’s assertion was a ‘misstatement’ resulting from ‘human error’ and not a deliberate ‘intention to mislead’, UKSA wrote.
UKSA said it expected the Hansard record to be corrected. I checked this morning and the faulty statement remains.
Gibb was also incorrect in claiming the UK ‘fell further’ in PISA 2012 tests for reading and maths. The UK’s relative position in these two subjects actually rose slightly. The UK’s position in science, however, did fall three places from 17th in 2009. Why, then, did Gibb not lambast UK 15 year-olds about their performance in science?
The answer is simple – and explains why science is rarely mentioned by politicians who want to allege that the UK performs badly in international league tables. The UK performs above the average for OECD countries in PISA science (it’s average in reading and maths). Science success, and the success of English 10 and 14 year-olds in Trends in Maths and Science Surveys, is not something ministers want spreading abroad. It is only by portraying state education as failing that Government politicians can justify pushing through radical reforms which will ultimately lead to England’s schools being run by for-profit education providers. As Gove said before the 2010 election, he would allow groups like Serco to run schools if they wanted to do so.
Gibb used the faulty figures to justify a fall in the proportion of 11 year-olds reaching the ‘expected standard in this year’s SATs. He was defending the accusation by Angela Rayner, MP, that the ‘primary assessment system was not fit for purpose’. In doing so, he ‘inadvertently’ used data known to be flawed for nearly six years.
It’s to be hoped that ministers don’t cite PISA 2000 again. If they do, however, I look forward to reading how the DfE will explain future ‘misstatements’.
*The correspondence is not yet available on UKSA’s website.