Get a grip, statistics watchdog warns education secretary

Janet Downs's picture

UKSA chair appears to be losing patience - and not before time

Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), appears to be losing patience with the Department for Education (DfE).  He’s written to education secretary Damian Hinds raising ‘serious concerns’ about how the DfE uses data, Schools Week reports. 

DfE ‘does not yet appear to have resolved issues’

UKSA, in formal tones, voices ‘regret’ that the DfE ‘does not yet appear to have resolved issues with its use of statistics’.   In plainer language, this means ‘get a grip’.

The watchdog had written to the DfE four times in the past twelve months criticising the DfE’s use of statistics.  But the DfE appears not to have taken any notice.

Gibb’s claims about global reading test were ‘not correct’

UKSA tells Hinds bluntly that Gibb’s use of PIRLS data in a Telegraph article and a DfE press release was ‘not correct’. 

DfE figures misrepresented changes in school funding

Figures about school funding were ‘presented in such a way as to misrepresent changes’, UKSA writes.  The spending comparison included figures ‘unrelated to publicly funded schools.’   This sleight of hand gave ‘a more favourable picture’ of education funding in England.

Presentation of Ofsted figures ‘does not give a full picture’

In response from a letter from the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, UKSA expresses concern about presentation of Ofsted data.   The DfE’s claim that there had been a substantial rise in the number of good or better schools was ‘accurate as far as it goes’ but did not give the full picture.

This echoes what we’ve been saying ad nauseam.    The oft-repeated claim of 1.9m more children in good or outstanding schools since 2010 failed to put the figures in context.  It did not acknowledge increased pupil numbers.  Neither did it explain changes in the way Ofsted inspected schools.  Nor did it admit that many of the inspections were ‘now long in the past’.

UKSA ‘sure’ that Hinds shares their concerns

I am sure you share my concerns that instances such as these do not help to promote trust and confidence in official data, and indeed risk undermining them,’ UKSA said to Hinds.

I don’t share UKSA’s confidence.  Hinds has already defended the DfE’s funding and Ofsted statistics claims, writes Schools Week.    And the only rebuke to Gibb is that he ‘could have been clearer’.

Gibb ignored earlier UKSA warning

But UKSA expressed concern over Gibb’s use of PIRLS data in January.  This warning was ignored.  

Hinds’ mild critique of Gibb’s lack of clarity still says ‘the improvement [in PIRLS] from 19th to 8th was between 2006 and 2016.’  But that’s what Gibb did say.  Hinds is either ignoring UKSA’s concerns or he doesn’t understand them.   This is what UKSA said in full:

Last week, the Minister of State for School Standards wrote that, in an international survey of reading abilities of nine-year-olds, England “leapfrogged up the rankings last year, after decades of falling standards, going from 19th out of 50 countries to 8th.”   This is not correct.  Figures published last year show the increase was from 10th place in 2011 to 8th place in 2016.’

Hinds has ignored the crucial fact that English ten-year-olds, not nine-year-olds as Gibb wrongly wrote, increased their score from 10th to 8th place in 2011.  It was in 2011 when English ten-year-olds leapt from 19th to 10th

But the 2011 results were airbrushed from Gibb’s euphoric claims about how his promotion of phonics was solely responsible for the rise in results from 2006.

Stop deceiving the public, says shadow education secretary

Angela Rayner told Schools Week:

They [the DfE} need to come clean and stop deceiving the public in a desperate attempt to cover up their shocking record.


ADDENDUM 15.35  The full text of Hinds'S letter to UKSA is here.

The DfE media department has also responded.   It's used some of the data which appeared in OECD charts which I have used previously in articles about schools funding.  It appears the DfE is playing catch up with LSN.

PS 15.42  The comparison with the G7 plays a major part in the DfE's response.  As I said earlier, it's easier to come top if you choose a small sample.

PPS 15.59  UKSA’s letter ‘is strong stuff from a regulator that is usually relatively mild mannered…For a department that is in charge of the nation’s numerical skills, the situation is getting embarrassing,’ writes Hetan Shah, Executive director, Royal Statistical Society, in Schools Week.


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John Mountford's picture
Mon, 08/10/2018 - 18:23

I only hope the UKSA keeps up pressure on government and the education department. The tragedy is that no one will pay a price for undermining what the watchdog correctly identifies as an issue of 'trust and confidence'. It's not that they may become eroded, they are! Yet agin the example from those at the top in government is deny, deny, deny. That may work in Westminster with its b.s., but it does not work if you care about transparency, honesty and bringing and curtailing the naked abuse of power.

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 08/10/2018 - 18:31


Final sentence should read, 'That may work in Westminster with its b.s. but it does not work if you care about transparency, honesty and curtailing the naked abuse of power.'

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