DfE spins GCSE exam data while ignoring problems besetting English schools

Janet Downs's picture

The proportion of pupils entering at least five EBacc subjects has gone down since 2016, from 39.7% in 2016 to 38.2% in 2017, Department for Education (DfE) statisticians have revealed.

The decrease was ‘largely driven’ by a fall in pupils taking a language at GCSE.

The decline in pupils entering EBacc must have posed a dilemma for the DfE press department.  However, it found an ingenious answer.  It decided to highlight the number of students who entered at least FOUR of the five EBacc subjects.  This, the press department said, had ‘increased by 4.8 percentage points – up to 82.0% in 2017’.

It’s unclear where the 82% figure came from.  It’s not in the DfE data.  The only time 82% is mentioned is in relation to the proportion of children in state-funded mainstream schools who attend a school without a religious designation.  (See correction below for details of how the DfE came to the 82% figure - I hadn't found it at the time of writing)

It wouldn’t be a DfE press release without quotes from schools minister Nick Gibb.  There’s the usual cut-and-paste comment: ‘1.9million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010’.  This repeat-a-quote had already appeared in an earlier DfE press release claiming the new Education Secretary of State (SoS) Damian Hinds had used the phrase in his Education World Forum speech.  Only he hadn’t

That wasn’t all:

Many free schools and academies are also delivering excellent results for pupils – with Harris Federation and Dixons Academy trusts leading the way…

These ‘excellent results’ are shared by others.  At the top of the Progress 8 league table there are local authority schools, faith schools and non-faith schools as well as converter academies, sponsored academies and free schools.

Gibb could equally well have said, ‘Many local authority schools are also delivering excellent results for pupils - with (insert names of top-performing LA schools) leading the way…’ Or ‘Many faith schools…’   Or ‘Many non-faith schools…’   Blah.  Blah.  Blah.

That’s unlikely of course.  The purpose of DfE press releases is to promote academies and free schools, praise government policy since 2010 and plug policies beloved by Nick Gibb.

This appears especially true when a schools minister appears at odds with his boss whether former SoS Justine Greening or present SoS Damian Hinds.  

All this self-congratulatory puff masks the very real problems facing English schools: school funding, recruitment and retention of teachers, school funding…school funding.’  As Laura McInerney, contributing editor for Schools Week, succinctly put it when commenting about the contrasting attitudes of Hinds and Gibb towards skills: 

Schools don’t need ministers to lock horns over philosophy, they need them to stop pratting about with cheap shots and nonsense, and instead come up with actual solutions to actual problems and announce those.’

CORRECTION 31 January 2018 10.25:  I've had another look at the DfE Statistical Release and discovered a reference to the proportion of pupils taking four components of the EBacc.  It says: 'There was another large increase in the percentage of pupils entering four components15 of the EBacc from 37.5% in 2016 to 43.8% in 2017'.   The DfE media department were correct in saying there'd been an increase but the actual figure of 43.8% is far short of the 82% cited in the press release.    Hwever, this correction doesn't debunk my suspicion that the DfE cited the increase in order to deflect attention from a decrease in the proportion entering for five EBacc subjects.

10.56  I've found how the DfE reached the 82% figure.  The PR department used the words 'at least' which allowed the figures to include the 43.8% who took four EBacc subjects AND those who entered five (38.2%).  This totals 82%.  But, again, this doesn't undermine my argument that in citing the proportion entering 'at least' four the DfE hoped to divert attention from a fall in the proportion taking all five.  EBacc is, after all, supposed to be a suite of FIVE subjects - and the proportion taking all five decreased in 2017. 


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John Bajina's picture
Tue, 30/01/2018 - 18:43

It is concerning the DfE should put out such obvious spin.
If the DfE is principally staffed by Civil Servants (some at high level with integrity to protect), why do they lend themselves to political spin?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/01/2018 - 10:18

John - the UK Satistics Authority constantly expresses concern to the DfE about its use of statistics.  The civil servants (if they were the ones who wrote the press release and not some SPAD) could say that citing the proportion of pupils who took four out of five EBacc subjects isn't materially misleading.  But it does, of course, divert attention from the decrease in the proportion taking five EBacc subjects.

A further question is where the figures came from.  I can't find any official DfE stats which cite the proportion taking four EBacc subjects.  I found an article in Education Business in October 2017 about the proportion taking at least four of the EBacc subjects.  The article said this had risen 'from 37.5 per cent in 2016 to 43.7 per cent this year, an increase of 6.2 percentage points.'  I don't know where Education Business got its figures from but 43.7% is far short of the 82% figures given in the DfE press release.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/01/2018 - 10:36

I've found where the stats came from.  They were in the Statistical Release and I'd missed them.  I've written a correction at the bottom of the article.  However, it doesn't debunk my argument that the DfE stressed the proportion taking four EBacc subjects to divert attention from a decrease in the proportion taking five. 

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/01/2018 - 11:13

John - I've now discovered where the 82% figure came from.  By using the words 'at least' the DfE spinners could add together the proportion taking four and those taking five.    But EBacc is supposed to be FIVE subjects.   Surely the DfE isn't lowering its own target in order to hype improvement? (Note: that last comment is sarcastic).

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