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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.