Watchdog blasts education department over 'serious' problems with school stats

Written by Matt Foster on 8 October 2018 in News
News

Education secretary Damian Hinds has been rapped by the government's statistics watchdog over a string of claims about school funding and performance.

Sir David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, said he had "serious concerns about the Department for Education's presentation and use of statistics", and has written a letter to the Cabinet minister to demand that the DfE's figures are "properly presented" in future.

The watchdog sounded the alarm about a string of recent claims made by the DfE, including schools minister Nick Gibb's assertion that England had "leapfrogged" up an international survey of reading abilities for nine-year-olds.

Gibb claimed that England had gone from 19th out of 50 countries to 8th over the past year.

But that was dismissed as "not correct" by the stats watchdog, which pointed out that the rise was in fact from 10th place in 2011 to 8th place in 2016.

He also took aim at a recent tweet and blog from the DfE which he said had used figures "in such a way as to misrepresent changes in school funding" and give "a more favourable picture" of the government's education spending record.

Sir David said: "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."

The stats chief meanwhile pounced on concerns raised by Labour's shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, who took issue with DfE's claim that there had been a "substantial increase" in the number of children attending high performing schools as judged by regulator Ofsted. 

The claim that 1.9m more people were "studying in good or oustanding schools" under the Conservatives was made in Mr Hinds' speech to the Tory party conference last week, prompting the Labour frontbencher to urge an investigation.

In his letter, Sir David said that while the claim was "accurate as far as it goes", it had failed to "give a full picture", and should have been put in context with an overall rise in pupil numbers and a string of changes to the way inspections are carried out.

He added: “The UK Statistics Authority has had cause to publicly write to the department with concerns on four occasions in the past year. I regret that the department does not yet appear to have resolved issues with its use of statistics.

"I seek your reassurance that the department remains committed to the principles and practices defined in the statutory code of practice for statistics. In particular, I urge the department to involve analysts closely in the development of its communications, to ensure that data are properly presented in a way that does not mislead."

A DfE spokesperson said the department would respond to the letter "in due course".

But they added: "The most recent volume of the OECD’s Education at a Glance report said in 2015 among G7 nations, the UK government spent the highest percentage of GDP on institutions delivering primary and secondary education.

"This is one of several statistics in the OECD report that demonstrate the UK is among the highest spenders on education at primary and secondary level, whether you look at spend as a share of GDP, spend as a share of government spending or spend per pupil. Other independently verified statistics show the government is investing in schools – the IFS found that real terms per pupil funding in 2020 will be over 50 per cent higher than it was in 2000.

"It is true to say that the OECD has ranked the UK as the third highest for education funding – this includes tertiary and private education for every country."

About the author

Matt Foster is news editor of CSW's sister publication Politics Home, where a verson of this story first appeared. He tweets as @mattlpfoster

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