DfE gives social media staff "refresher training" after grammar schools tweet row

Extra training for communications staff comes after stats watchdog said the DfE had tweeted a "misleading" claim on grammar schools

By Matt Foster

22 Nov 2016

The Department for Education has given its communications staff extra training after the UK's statistics watchdog criticised the department for a "misleading" tweet about grammar schools.

As first reported by Education Guardian, the official Twitter feed of the DfE earlier this month 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”. 

Following complaints, the UK Statistics Authority wrote to the DfE to take issue with the claims made in the tweet, saying the post "was not a fair representation of the underlying statistics" on grammar schools and had not been based on comparable data. 

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The UKSA's Ed Humpherson urged the department to "avoid the recurrence of such misleading communications", while former Cabinet Office chief economist Jonathan Portes told CSW he believed the message was "a clear violation of both the Code of Practice for Statistics and the wider Civil Service Code".

The DfE's Iain Bell, who serves as director of the department's data standards analysis group, has now written to Humpherson to acknowledge that "usual processes" were not followed in the social media post, which was based on claims extrapolated from a much more detailed parliamentary question.

"DfE have processes in place to check tweets which have statistical material," he wrote. "However, in this instance the analysts were not involved in checking the  tweet."

Bell acknowledged "the two main issues issues with the tweet",  including that the phrasing of the message "implied causality between being a selective school and the differences in outcomes" even though "a number of other factors... could have explained the difference". 

The parliamentary question referred to in the tweet had, Bell said, included "a set of caveats and links to the underlying published statistics", information that would have allowed users "to fully judge" the limitations of the data.

The DfE director sought to reassure the UKSA on the steps the department has now taken to avoid a repeat of the incident.

Bell said: "As a result of this, we have arranged refresher training for Communications Group and social media staff and are putting in place an ongoing programme to ensure that new members of staff are fully inducted in the processes to  ensure the Department maintains the highest standards in use of data as  required by the UK Statistics Authority."

The DfE is currently seeking views on a plan to lift 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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