The Tories' manipulation of education statistics

There is no evidence that reading standards have fallen among school children.

In Saturday's Guardian (Letters, 28 Jan), schools minister Nick Gibb defends the government's view that phonics are the only way to reach children to read. His central justification is that something must be done: "International studies rank England 25th for reading - down from seventh nine years ago."

In the very literal sense, Gibb is correct. In 2000, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) placed England in 7th position in its table (p.53). In 2009, it was in the 25th row of a similar table (p. 56).

In any other sense you care to mention, Gibb is entirely wrong , because:

1) Twelve other countries, nominally above England in the 2009 tables, have statistically insignificant higher scores. The National Foundation for Educational Research's summary of the OECD findings is quite explicit about this: "Because of the areas of uncertainty described above, interpretations of very small differences between two sets of results are often meaningless. Were they to be measured again, it could well be that the results would turn out the other way round (p.8)"

2) 31 countries took part in the tests in 2000, and 67 in 2009. Shanghai and Singapore may be nominally above the UK in the 2009 tables but they didn’t take part in the 2006 or earlier surveys. This makes direct comparison between years invalid.

3) The OECD’s warned explicitly (para 2 of this technical note) against comparing earlier PISA results with earlier data, because the very low response rate for earlier years largely invalidated samples.

4) The 2000 and 2003 tests were conducted some months earlier in school year 11 (Nov/Dec) than the 2006/2009 (March-May) ones, as an exception to the international study (to make room for GCSE preparations). As John Jerrim of the Institute of Education has noted, taking the tests around half a school year early makes a very obvious difference: "[I]t is important to understand that between November/December and March‐May of year 11 is likely to be a period when children add substantially to their knowledge of the PISA subjects as it is when pupils are working towards important national exams. Consequently, one should expect the year 11 pupils in the PISA 2000/2003 cohort to out‐perform their peer taking the test in 2006/2009 due to the extra five months they have had at school….."

In short, there is simply no reliable evidence that 15-year-olds in England are any less able to read and understand texts, when compared to their international peers, than they were nine year ago. Yet here we have a government minister using that argument as a key reason for a fundamental and controversial change in which five and six-year-olds are taught.

Now, if this was a result of incompetence on the part of the minister and his department, that would be worrying enough. But what should really concern us is that the Department of Education almost certainly knows perfectly well that its "interpretation" of the OECD data is entirely incorrect, but is determined to carry on peddling its untruths anyway.

The key evidence of this, I suggest, is the way in which Michael Gove himself defended his proposals for a return to 'O' Levels/CSE in parliament on 21 June:

The sad truth is that, if we look at the objective measure of how we have done over the past 15 years, we find that on international league tables our schools fell in reading from 523 to 494 points, in maths from 529 to 492 and in science from 528 to 514.

Here, Gove used the OECD raw scores for 2000 and 2009 rather than the table rankings (the lower scores can largely still be explained by two of the factors above). He almost certainly did this because he and his team realised they had been rumbled by blogs like Though Cowards Flinch with a mind to detail, and by a Guardian editorial of the same day, which said:

Mr Gove.... latches on to data purporting to show English schools plummeting down world rankings. The Institute of Education has meticulously documented all sorts of distortions in these apparently alarming figures, but such calming analysis fails to register. Mr Gove should go away, revise the evidence properly – and prepare for a resit.

Clearly, Gove didn't want to be caught red-handed by Labour members assiduous enough to have read the Guardian that morning. Yet just a month later we have the schools minister writing to the same paper with the very nonsense his boss had been wary of using.

The real tragedy, of course, is not that Guardian readers are being lied to, but that actual educational policy is being developed on the basis of false data. The direct consequence of the pretence that comparative reading standards are plummeting is a emphasis on setting higher targets, as set out by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools who, sadly, has been all too complicit in the myth-making. Wilshaw has stated that: "So one of the first questions we need to ask is whether the national end-of-primary-school target of level 4 is sufficiently high to provide an adequate foundation for success at secondary school."

Yet data in the government's own 2010 education white paper suggests that the actual problem policymakers should be facing up to is not low targets, but unequal distributi on of achievement between the upper and lower percentiles compared with other countries (see Exhibit 1.1 in this PIRLS report). By focusing their energies on the creation of fundamentally dishonest headlines, the government and its advisers are actively missing out on data which might actually improve the lives of young people.

Of course, this is not the first time that the government has resorted to the use of dodgy statistics. Chris Grayling has already had his wrists slapped by the UK Statistics Authority for his flagrant abuse of statistics. Now, it even looks as though the government may attemp to explain away its disastrous management of the economy by casting doubt on the reliability of the GDP data collected by the Office for National Statistics, without providing a shred of evidence as to how these dataset might have been considered reliable for so long but are now, so suddenly, suspect.

Overall, a picture is starting to emerge of a government prepared, in its mix of desperation and ideological fervour, to go one step beyond spin. That should keep us on our toes.

"Actual educational policy is being developed on the basis of false data." Photograph: Getty Images.

Paul Cotterill is a blogger for Liberal Conspiracy and Though Cowards Flinch.

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OK, let's do this: who REALLY won Legs-It? An exclusive investigation

Look, some of you just aren't treating this question with the seriousness it deserves. 

This morning, the Daily Mail front page dared to look past the minutiae of Brexit - can my EU partner still live here? Why is my holiday so expensive? Should we be worried that David Davis looks like a man who's ended up a minister because he lost a bet? - to ask the really big question. 

Yes, indeed. Who is Top of the Tibia? Who shines in the shin department? Which of these impressive, powerful women has lower limbs which best conform to our arbitrary beauty standards? 

In the accompanying article, Sarah Vine (herself the owner of not one, but TWO lower limbs) wrote that the women put on a show of unity with "two sets of hands clasped calmly on the arms of their respective chairs", disdaining the usual diplomatic practice of accompanying discussions about Article 50 with a solemn, silent re-enactment of the Macarena.

Vine adds: "But what stands out here are the legs – and the vast expanse on show. There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed." That's right, people: Theresa May has been unafraid to wear a skirt, rather than a pair of trousers with one leg rolled up like LL Cool J. A departure for Mrs May, to be sure, but these are uncertain times and showing off just one calf might see the stock markets plunge.

The prime minister has come to the bold decision that her legs are the "finest weapons in her physical armoury", when others might argue it's the sharp, retractable venom-filled spurs on her fore-limbs. (Oh wait, my mistake. That's the duck-billed platypus.)

As ever, the bien-pensant left is squawking about sexism and avoiding the real issue: who really won Legs-it? Well, there will be no handwringing over how this is a belittling way to treat two female politicians here, thank you very much. We shall not dwell on the fact that wearing a skirt while doing politics is not really remarkable enough to merit a front page, oh no. Instead, we shall bravely attempt to answer that Very Important Question. 

Who really won Legs-it? 

1. David Cameron

We might not know who won Legs-It, but let's be honest - we all know who lost. David Cameron here has clearly concluded that, much like Andrew Cooper's pre-referendum polling results, his legs are best hidden away while everyone politely pretends they don't exist. 

Legs-It Rating: 2/10

2. Michael Gove

Fun fact: Michael Gove's upper thighs are equipped with sharp, retractable claws, which aid him in knifing political rivals in the back.

Legs-It Rating: 8/10

3. David Davis

Mr Davis's unusually wide stance here suggests that one leg doesn't know what the other is doing. His expression says: this walking business is more difficult than anyone let on, but I mustn't let it show. Bad legs are better than no legs.  

Legs-It Rating: 6/10

4. Boris Johnson

Real talk: these legs don't really support Boris Johnson, they're just pretending they do to advance their career. 

Legs-It Rating: 6/10

5. George Osborne

Take in these long, cool pins. These are just two out of George Osborne's six legs. 

Legs-It Rating: 9/10

6. Liam Fox

In the past, Liam Fox has faced criticism for the way his left leg follows his right leg around on taxpayer-funded foreign trips. But those days are behind him now.

Legs-It Rating: 10/10

7. Nigel Farage

So great are the demands on the former Ukip leader's time these days, that his crotch now has a thriving media career of its own, independent from his trunk and calves. Catch it on Question Time from Huddersfield next month. 

Legs-It Rating: 7/10

Conclusion

After fearlessly looking at nine billion photos of legs in navy trousers, we can emphatically conclude that THEY ARE ALL BASICALLY THE SAME LEG. Life is great as a male politician, isn't it?

I'm a mole, innit.