Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, has said his department is striving to build a reputation as a “trustworthy communicator of statistics”, following multiple warnings from the stats watchdog about ministers’ use of figures to back up questionable spending claims.
In a letter to Ed Humpherson, director general for the UK Statistics Authority’s Office for Statistics Authority, Slater said DfE had “taken a number of steps over the last few months to ensure statistics are always accurate and used in the appropriate context”.
Slater said the department had made considerable progress since being warned by the regulator of “serious” problems about its presentation and use of statistics in October last year. He said the department needed to improve its performance after UKSA sounded the alarm about a string of claims by ministers and the department itself about schools’ performance and funding.
But at the end of last month, Humpherson urged the department to start publishing official statistics for school funding, after receiving further complaints about ministers’ statements.
He wrote to both Slater and Neil McIvor, DfE’s chief data officer and chief statistician in May about both ministers’ use of disparate data sources to back up claims, which made them difficult to verify, and how statistics were presented. For example, in claiming that the government had “protected school funding in real term terms” since 2010, schools minister Nick Gibb had failed to make clear that the figure referred only to schools’ budget for 5 to 16 year olds, Humpherson said.
He said it would “help support public understanding if the department were to publish a consistent and comprehensive set of official statistics on school funding, to which all participants in public debate could refer”.
Responding last week, Slater said the department published a “wide range” of information on education funding.
"As you have recognised, we have taken a number of steps over the last few months to ensure statistics are always accurate and used in the appropriate context. And, more broadly, I am committed to ensuring we build the Department’s reputation as a trustworthy communicator of statistics."
However, he added: “I agree with you that there is more we can do to bring that wide range of information into one place and to help users navigate this complex landscape, as well as to consider the potential for additional information where this would be helpful.”
DfE officials would continue to work closely with UKSA to improve its use of statistics and raise awareness of the need to communicate figures in a way that was accurate and clear, Slater said.