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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder