Department for Education rapped by stats watchdog over "misleading" grammar schools tweet

UK Statistics Authority says DfE's now-deleted grammar schools claim was based on incomparable data

By Matt Foster

22 Nov 2016

The Department for Education has been reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority over a "misleading" tweet which claimed grammar schools were more effective than comprehensives in helping white working class boys get into university.

As first reported by Education Guardian, earlier this month the official Twitter feed of the DfE posted a message – since deleted – which said: “70% of white working class boys from grammars go to uni vs 54% from comprehensives. What do you think about grammars”. 

After receiving a complaint from former Cabinet Office chief economist Jonathan Portes, the UK Statistics Authority's director general Ed Humpherson wrote to the DfE's permanent secretary Jonathan Slater to take issue with the claims made in the tweet, and to urge the department to "avoid the recurrence of such misleading communications".

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The UKSA challenged the tweet on two fronts. Firstly, it said the use of the term "working class boys" appeared to be inaccurate because the DfE had already madeclear that it it did not collect information on pupils' socio-economic status.

"Instead, the statistics quoted were about white male students who were eligible for free school meals in year 11," Humpherson said.

The stats watchdog also pointed out that the claim made in the DfE's social media post was not based on comparable data.

"It is also in the nature of grammar schools that they are selective, unlike most comprehensive schools, and the tweet is therefore not making a like for like comparison between the two types of school," Humpherson wrote.

The UKSA concluded that the tweet "was not a fair representation of the underlying statistics", with Humpherson saying that while he was "pleased" that the department had since withdrawn the message, he was "disappointed" that the DfE had chosen to publish it in the first place.

"I understand that in this case the statistical team was not consulted before the message was tweeted, which was unfortunate," he wrote to Slater. 

"I would therefore like to ask for an update from you on how you will avoid the recurrence of such misleading communications."

Portes, who raised the complaint with the UKSA, told CSW that the tweet was "completely inappropriate coming from a government department".

"That the Department for Education should deliberately exploit the lack of statistical knowledge of the general population in order to mislead them into thinking that grammars improve the educational outcomes of white working class boys is disgraceful," he said. "It is a clear violation of both the Code of Practice for Statistics and the wider Civil Service Code."

The DfE is currently consulting on moves to end the ban on new grammar schools which has been in place since 1998, arguing that there is demand from parents for new selective schools and "good evidence" to suggest grammar-educated pupils "outperform their counterparts at non-selective schools".

But the proposal has been met with criticism from some quarters, with the government's own Social Mobility Commission last week warning that the planned expansion of grammars was "at best, a distraction and, at worst, a risk to efforts aimed at narrowing the significant social and geographical divides that bedevil England’s school system".

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