The UK statistics regulator has written to Department for Education perm sec Jonathan Slater warning him that DfE risks losing trust if it continues to breach guidelines on pre-release access to official statistics.
There have been three reported code of conduct breaches at DfE since September, each of which involved communications or policy staff prematurely sharing data with department officials not on a pre-release access list.
Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation – which has been monitoring the department’s use of statistics following previous incidents of misuse – called on Slater to tighten up access protocols.
“I am becoming increasingly concerned over the lack of secure pre-release access arrangements in the Department for Education,” he wrote.
“Repeated breaches of pre-release access pose a significant risk to the trustworthiness of the department, and have the potential to undermine the independence of government statistics.”
None of the three beaches – involving data on pupil attainment in phonics, participation in further education, and outcomes of key stage 2 national curriculum assessments – resulted in statistics being released in advance of publication.
But Humpherson’s letter follows a previous one from September chiding the department’s head of statistics for DfE’s opaque use of stats on free schools and delays to publication of data on academy trusts. The OSR pledged then to monitor the department to ensure it improved transparency.
While Humpherson, in his letter of 23 November, praised the correct reporting of the three data breaches and the efforts of the department to reinforce protocols, he said Slater needed to take further actio
“It is clear that more effective and timely measures need to be taken to avoid future reoccurrences,” he said. “I would strongly recommend that you, along with your head of profession for statistics, consider what appropriate actions need to be taken to make access arrangement secure and implement these at the earliest opportunity.”
The Royal Statistical Society, which has been campaigning to end pre-release access to official statistics for ministers and their political and media advisers, said all departments should follow the lead of the ONS, which scrapped the practice of gifting previews earlier this year.
Hetan Shah, RSS’s executive director, said: “It's high time the practice of pre-release access was stopped at the Department for Education. Public opinion supports the idea that we should all see the numbers at the same time.
“The Office for National Statistics stopped the practice of pre-release access earlier this year and it’s time DfE and other government departments followed suit.”
The Home Office was also urged to review its pre-release access practices earlier this year, after a report on international students overstaying their visas was leaked to the media – a gaffe described as “damaging” by Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UK Statistics Authority.