The Department for Education (DfE) was forced to issue a ‘clarification to the consultation document’ on proposals in ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’ following concerns raised by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA). It also ‘added an additional data table, to remove any uncertainty or confusion’.
The amendment referred to the ethnicity of pupils attending faith free schools and Catholic schools. The revised data showed an average of at least 80% from a ‘single dominant ethnic group’ filled places in new minority-faith free schools compared with 75% in Catholic schools. New faith free schools are expected to reserve 50% of their places to non-faith pupils and this has been cited as a ‘barrier’ to the establishment of new Catholic free schools. A ‘single dominant ethnic group’ is not the same as ‘a single dominant faith group’, of course, so the clarification may have resulted in further confusion not illumination.
It was unlikely, however, that such a last minute update would affect responses to the consultation. It was released on a Friday. The consultation finished the following Tuesday.
It’s not the first time UKSA has expressed concern about the way DfE has conducted itself during the consultation. The DfE was forced to retract a tweet in November giving misleading information comparing the proportion of ‘white working class boys’ going to university from grammar schools and non-selective schools.
The consultation has been mired in controversy. It presumed respondents agreed with the proposals and did not invite dissent. The long consultation document was followed in November by the publication of a short consultation aimed at parents which Laura McInerney, editor of Schools Week, described as:
‘…a campaign [which] has been created to find parents and push them to answer a few questions about selective schools. The webpages on which they do this provide information that gives the government’s reasons for introducing the policies, without a nod towards the stacks of evidence against it.’
The short consultation was set up to allow multiple responses which, as I discovered when I submitted answers in the names of Scrooge and Marley, could be fictitious. The DfE told Schools Week it could spot bogus survey submissions but I’m not convinced. These could easily slip under the radar if less obviously fictitious names were used. A determined respondent, for or against the proposals, could submit multiple responses to the short survey from the same computer using common names from a phone book. The questions are few and could be answered with similarly few words. These would be difficult to spot if such a respondent used different words or phrases in the answers.
The skewed nature of the consultation, UKSA concerns, a belated ‘update’ and the possibility of submitting multiple, fictitious responses make the consultation results unreliable. A government which claims to base policies on evidence would do well to ditch this phoney exercise.
CORRECTION 12.20 18 January 2017: The original article said 'The revised data showed an average of at least 80% of a ‘single dominant ethnic group’ filled places in new minority-faith free schools compared with 75% in Catholic schools.' This was confusing. The sentence has been revised to make it clear the revised data showed an average of at least 80% were from a single dominant ethnic group...