DfE slated by statistics watchdog – again

Janet Downs's picture

It’s becoming a habit with the Department for Education.  The department or its ministers make a dodgy statement.  A complaint is made to the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).  The watchdog investigates.

This has been going on for some time now.

And it keeps on happening.

The latest rap on the knuckles, reported by Schools Week, concerns a DfE claim in an ‘ad-hoc’ document from October 2016 that demand for grammar school places exceeded supply by almost 11,000.  This was far greater than demand for places in non-selective schools, the DfE had said.

The campaign group Comprehensive Future complained that the DfE had not taken into account the ‘significant proportion’ of grammar school applications from parents whose children were not eligible for a selective school place because they hadn’t taken the 11+ or had failed it.

Schools Week reports that 1,037 of 3,013 first-preference applications for places in Kent’s grammars in 2016 were for children who hadn’t passed the 11+. 

UKSA said first-preference statistics were a ‘reasonable proxy measure’ to assess demand for selective schools.  However, the DfE should have provided further information about applicants’ eligibility status to ensure readers understood that ‘a number of applications for selective schools may include pupils who have not passed the 11-plus test’.

The DfE ‘agreed to amend’ the publication.  However, the DfE will feel safe in the knowledge that the original dubious statement will have stuck in readers’ minds and any amendment, even an abject apology, would largely go unnoticed.

In a separate ruling, UKSA responded to my complaint about a DfE press release from March 2017.  The DfE had written:

‘Recent analysis of Ofsted inspections shows 29% of free school inspected have been rated ‘outstanding’ – which means as a proportion free schools are the highest-performing group of non-selective state schools.’

I argued that the number of free schools inspected was too small to compare with thousands of non-selective schools.  I cited Ofsted’s warning that caution was needed when using data relating to free school inspections.

I argued the DfE had not exercised caution.

UKSA replied that the use of data in policy statements ‘should meet basic professional standards’.  However, it didn’t consider the free schools statistics were ‘materially misleading’.  Nevertheless, ‘improvements could have been made’ in both presentation and ‘regarding the inclusion of the comparative statements linked to inspections rating as “outstanding”.’  UKSA has shared its views with the DfE (not for the first time).

If it’s not ‘materially misleading’ to point out that free schools are more likely to be Outstanding, then it’s not ‘materially misleading’ to point out that they are also more likely to be Inadequate.  That’s something missing from puff pieces about the alleged superiority of free schools.

NOTE:  I was unable to write about UKSA’s response to my complaint at the time I received an opinion because we had entered purdah.  But purdah’s now over.




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