Statistics watchdog raps Department for Education over ‘unclear’ free school data

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 28 September 2017 in News
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Office for Statistics Regulation to monitor department while it implements a series of recommendations to improve transparency

Department for Education used statistics based on two different definitions of "free schools" in the same press release. Credit: Barry Batchelor/PA 

The UK’s statistics regulator has censured the Department for Education over a lack of clarity around the use of certain statistics on free schools and "excessive” delays to the publication of promised data.

The Office for Statistics Regulation said it will monitor the department “in the coming weeks and months” to ensure it is making progress on several recommendations to improve transparency set by the OSR.

Ed Humpherson, the OSR’s director general for regulation, wrote to DfE’s head of statistics to chide him on two recent issues related to statistics produced by the department.


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The first relates to the DfE’s use of statistics in a press release about free schools, which contained figures on the numbers of free schools opened since 2011, and the Ofsted inspection ratings for them. The former included studio schools and university technical colleges while the latter excluded them.

“These statistics were based on differing definitions of free schools and this was not made clear to readers,” said Humpherson.

The department has since issued a revised version following discussion with the OSR.

The second criticism was based on the DfE’s decision to delay publication of the cost of transferring schools between academy trusts – after the number of transfers increased substantially from 26 in 2014 to 134 in 2016. The letter said the department had “stated to users its intention to publish this information since early 2016”, but it was only made available this month.

“The extended time frame between promising the release of data and its publication was excessive and left DfE open to criticism on its release practices,” said Humpherson.

He called on the department to “publish development or work plans for new and existing statistics, especially those cited in Freedom of Information responses, indicating likely release dates where feasible”.

Humpherson said that data and statistics produced by DfE have “high public value” and asked the department to be transparent about plans to publish statistics and to ensure that the head of profession for statistics has sole responsibility for the release of statistics.

He also called for a comprehensive sign-off procedure to be put in place for statisticians checking the content of press releases, as well as steps to make sure communications and policy staff are aware of the importance of following the Code of Practice.

He concluded: “I am happy to support you in undertaking these actions where appropriate, and I will be asking my team to monitor progress against these actions in the coming weeks and months.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The department takes the proper use of statistics very seriously. We have received the letter and will consider its contents carefully.”

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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