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 the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.