Jonathan Slater, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education, has said his department needs to improve how it uses figures after it was warned by the UK Statistics Authority not to “misrepresent” its spending record.
Slater wrote to Ed Humpherson, head of the watchdog's regulatory arm, saying he took “good and proper use of statistics very seriously” the same day as education secretary Damian Hinds defended the department’s use of statistics.
Yesterday 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 had written to the Cabinet minister to demand its figures were "properly presented" in future.
He said a claim by schools minister Nick Gibb that the UK had “leapfrogged” 11 places in an international survey of 9-year-olds’ reading ability was “not correct”, and criticised the DfE's use of OECD figures "in such a way as to misrepresent changes in school funding".
His warning came less than a week after it was reported that the statistics authority had launched an investigation into how the DfE had used the OECD figures, when it emerged they also included tuition fees.
Responding to the rebuke, Slater said: “Official statistics are a key public asset and I fully agree that government departments must maintain their reputations as trustworthy communicators of statistics.”
“We need to improve our performance, as demonstrated by the specific issues raised in [Norgrove’s] letter to my secretary of state.”
He acknowledged that the department should have made it clear that the UK’s 11-place jump in reading levels had happened over a decade and not over the last year. “Similarly, any comments on OECD funding comparisons should distinguish clearly between schools and education as a whole.
“And charts and statistics, whether on matters of finance or performance, need to be presented in context so as to aid understanding,” he said.
Slater said he had asked Neil McIvor, the department’s head statistician, to work with its communications and policy teams to ensure its statistics “meet the highest standards of trustworthiness, quality and value”.
Writing to Norgrove on the same day, Hinds said his department was “looking into the precise issues” raised by Norgrove, but defended its use of OECD figures to underline the government's spending record on schools.
“We need to be clear about different types of funding and spending. However, several statistics in the OECD’s 2018 report comparing expenditure in 2015… demonstrate the UK as being among the higher spenders on education at primary and secondary level,” he said.
And he added: “It is true to say that the OECD has ranked the UK as the third highest for total education spending – the figure which includes tertiary and private education for every country.”
“Naturally we want to ensure we always present those factually accurate statements, and all others, in line with your code of practice for statistics and look forward to working with your team further on that,” Hinds said.
Speaking to CSW, Hetan Shah, head of the Royal Statistical Society, said it would "take a lot of work for DfE in future to show its use of statistics are trustworthy" as statistical oversight had been "sidelined" in official communications.
"It is very rare for the UKSA to issue a letter which is as condemnatory as this. You might say that DfE has been put in ‘special measures’ for repeat offending," he said.