How Michael Gove manipulated education statistics

The Education Secretary's misleading claim that the UK has plummeted down the international league tables.

One of Michael Gove's favourite arguments for his school reforms is that Britain has plummeted down the international education league tables. In June 2011 he told Policy Exchange that the UK had fallen from "4th to 16th place in science; from 7th to 25th place in literacy; and from 8th to 28th in maths" between 2000 and 2009 in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

But how reliable are the statistics? In this week's NS, Peter Wilby draws attention to a story that deserves more than attention than it has so far received (no national paper has reported on it). Last month, in response to a letter from David Miliband, Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, expressed "concern" about the Department for Education's unqualified use of the figures. He noted that the OECD's 2009 report for the UK included the following "important caveat":

Trend comparisons, which are a feature of the PISA 2009 reporting are not reported here because for the United Kingdom it is only possible to compare 2006 and 2009 data. As the PISA 2000 and PISA 2003 samples did not meet the PISA response-rate standards, no trend comparisons are possible for these years.

In other words, Gove should not be comparing results from 2000 with those from 2009. Dilnot wrote: "While I understand that some users of these data would like to make comparisons between the first PISA study in 2000 and the most recent in 2009, the weaknesses relating to the response-rate standard in earlier studies should not be ignored."

He concluded: "These uncertainties and weaknesses are not just a technical footnote; they are themselves an important part of the evidence, and affect interpretation and meaning. League tables and the presentation of international rankings can be statistically problematic, and require clear and careful commentary alongside them."

The statistics chief also noted a review published by the Institute for Education which concluded that "problems with identifying change over time" meant the apparent decline in secondary school pupils' performance should not be treated as a "statistically robust result". The Department for Education is yet to respond.

This isn't the only recent instance of the coalition playing fast and loose with statistics. David Cameron is fond of boasting that "one million" new private sector jobs have been created since the coalition came to power, but, as I've noted before, what he doesn't mention is that 196,000 of these were simply reclassified from the public sector.

After complaining for years about Gordon Brown's manipulation of economic statistics, the coalition came to power promising a new era of transparency. But Gove and Cameron's behaviour suggests it's not prepared to practise what it preached.

Education Secretary Michael Gove was criticised for ignoring "weaknesses" in the statistics. Photoraph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.