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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Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

Her £1bn deal with the DUP could make it even harder to push through cuts in the rest of the UK.

Going, going, gone...sold to the dark-haired woman from Enniskillen! Theresa May has signed a two-year deal with Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader, to keep her in office. The price? A cool £1bn and the extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland.

The deal will have reverberations both across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland specifically. To take the latter first – the amount spent in Northern Ireland in 2016/17 was just under £10bn. A five point increase in spending on health, education and roads is a fairly large feather in anyone's cap.

It transforms the picture as far as the fraught negotiations over restoring power-sharing goes. It increases the pressure on Sinn Féin to restore power-sharing so they can help decide exactly where the money goes. And if there's another election, it means that Arlene Foster goes into it not as the woman who oversaw the wasteful RHI scheme (a renewable energy programme that because of its poor drafting saw farmers paid to heat empty rooms) but as the negotiator who bagged an extra £1bn for Northern Ireland. 

Across the United Kingdom, the optics are less good for the (nominal) senior partner to the deal.

"May buys DUP support with £1 billion 'bung" is the Times"£1bn for DUP is 'just the start" is the Telegraph's splash, and their Scottish edition is worse: "Fury at 'grubby' deal with DUP". With friends like this, who needs the Guardian? (They've gone for "May hands £1bn bonanza to DUP to cling on at No 10" as their splash, FYI.) 

Not to be outdone, the Mirror opts for "May's £1bn bribe to crackpots" while the Scotsman goes for "£100 million per vote: The price of power".  Rounding off the set, the Evening Standard has mocked Foster up as Dr Evil and Theresa May as Mini-Me on its front page. The headline? "I demand the sum of....one billion pounds!"   

Of course, in terms of what the government spends, £1bn is much ado about nothing. (To put it in perspective, the total budget across the UK is £770bn or thereabouts, debt interest around £40bn, the deficit close to £76bn).

But only a few weeks ago Theresa May was telling a nurse that the reason she couldn't get a pay rise is that there is "no magic money tree". Now that magic money tree is growing freely in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives have been struggling to get further cuts through as it is – just look at the row over tax credits, or the anger at school cuts in the election – but now any further cuts in England, Scotland and Wales will rub up against the inevitable comeback not only from the opposition parties but the voters: "But you've got money to spend in Northern Ireland!"

(That £1bn is relatively small probably makes matters worse – an outlay per DUP MP that you might expect a world-class football club to spend on a quality player. It's tangible, rather like that £350m for the NHS. £30bn? That's just money.)

For Labour, who have spent the last seven years arguing, with varying degrees of effectiveness that austerity is a choice, it's as close to an open goal as you can imagine. Theresa May's new government is now stable – but it's an open question as to how long it will take her party to feel strong again.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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