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.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.