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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith: Theresa May is the Tory leader Labour should fear

George Osborne is not inevitable as the next Tory leader – and Theresa May could be the one to see him off.

Some people believe that Theresa May has had her day as a Tory leadership contender, but she is a woman who has been underestimated throughout her career. Furthermore, as Angela Merkel, Tessa Jowell, Margaret Hodge and Harriet Harman will tell you, we are in the day of the (slightly) older woman politician. And, while Margaret Thatcher was certainly not an advocate for more Tory women, her legacy is a Conservative party who would not find it impossible to countenance another woman in charge. Could that be May?

Throughout her political career, May has never been seen as “a rising star”. She was involved in politics at Oxford University having gained a place from her grammar school, but was not particularly pushy or sparkling future leader material. She worked in banking for a period and was a councillor in Merton. She fought two unwinnable seats before finally getting elected to parliament in 1997. So no easy, gilded rise through the party for her. Being on the receiving end of some of the misogyny found in all parties’ selection procedures may have been the spur which led her to declare the Conservatives the “nasty party” in her famous 2002 conference speech as party chair under Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership. She is a bit of an outsider, willing to argue that her party had to change and to reach out beyond its natural supporters. She is no Robert Halfon-style, blue-collar Conservative, but nor is she a “posh boy” – perhaps the perfect positioning for a future leader.

Thatcher prided herself on being an ‘honorary man’ – no feminist solidarity for her. However, May is much more comfortable supporting other women – she is an advocate of the Tory party’s efforts to find more women candidates. As party leader, she might well find ways to appeal to the older women who tend to vote, but have not always been attracted by the “calm down, dear” machismo of the current  Tory leadership.

A winning party leader will have to command the political centre-ground. May is no rightwing ideologue. She shows little passion for eye-catching policy announcements and has rarely, in recent years ventured beyond her Home Office brief to express strong views or a sense of the direction she would like to take the country in. The British public may not be attracted by demagoguery, but they will need a clear idea of what a May leadership would believe in and do. This could be an even greater barrier to actually getting elected within the Conservative party to begin with. For example, May has largely avoided the issue of Europe. She did make a speech last year criticising the stifling effect of European Union regulation, but the context was interesting. Some saw this as an attempt to broaden her appeal within the party, but it was also made at the time when she was attempting to win support to opt back in to a range of EU justice and home affairs measures including the European arrest warrant, which the government had opted out of in a grandstanding gesture. She may have to make ideological gestures to win  Tory support, but is fundamentally pragmatic.

However, that is not to say that she is not willing to be brave in taking on those who she feels need challenge. Her “nasty party” speech was one such example, but more recently she was willing to offer some home truths to the Police Federation at its conference. This was certainly at a time when the Fed was already weakened by internal divisions and the police was dogged by scandal. But, as any Home Secretary knows, the conference can be an unpleasant and surly event and it shows mettle to take them on in this arena.

Her time as one of the longest serving home secretaries is a double-edged sword for an aspiring Conservative leader. Being Home Secretary is a serious and difficult job – holding onto it for as long as she has means that nobody could doubt her credentials to take one more step up the ladder. Dealing with the security, cross-government issues and “events” which are the bread and butter of Home Secretaries is possibly a better qualification to be Prime  Minister than the more controlled environment of the Treasury. However, the all-encompassing seriousness of the role also makes it more difficult to win support as a future leader or prime minister. Being Home Secretary with the current policy portfolio is essentially about stopping bad things from happening. It does not leave a lot of time to make the wider political arguments or to engage in the “hopey, changey’” thing which many would look for in a future leader.

She has made mistakes – alienating the civil service in a particularly cavalier shifting of the blame onto senior Border Force official Brodie Clark for supposed weaknesses in border security when the fault was in her policy decisions. She has shown bad judgement and a lack of imagination in sticking with a crude immigration cap which achieves the double whammy of being impossible to deliver and perverse in the impact of trying to.

There is no doubt that May is not a clubbable or particularly warm person so has not built up a cadre of enthusiastic supporters. She has lost some good ministers from the Home Office, like Nick Herbert and Pauline Neville-Jones, suggesting that she may not excel at building the sort of team spirit needed to win a leadership bid and maintain the ‘machine’ necessary to be a successful leader.

However, she has built her career so far on not being a “natural” for each of the political jobs she has held. She has outperformed expectations and has some of the ingredients necessary to move the Tory party on from the dilettante gentleman, amateur approach of David Cameron. It is a record and an approach which just might attract both the party and those voters who Labour so desperately needs to win back. Don’t write her off yet.

This essay is from Face-Off, a series of linked articles on the next Conservative leader.