Michael Gove revealed to be using PR-commissioned puff-polls as "evidence"

Eight out of ten cats prefer Michael Gove to Whiskas.

The Department of Education is notoriously bad at answering freedom of information requests, even being put under special monitoring by the information commissioner's office in December last year because of past inadequacies in answering queries. So it's doubly impressive that Janet Downs, a retired teacher and campaigner who is part of the Local Schools Network, not only managed to get an answer from them, but also extract an excruciating confession about what passes for "evidence" in Michael Gove's department.

Querying a claim made in article in the Mail on Sunday titled "I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools: Education Secretary berates 'the new enemies of promise' for opposing his plans", Downs asked for the background to Gove's claim that:

Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.

The department revealed that the main claim sources from a survey "commissioned and conducted by UKTV Gold", and that the other surveys referred to include:

That last survey was linked, by the Department of Education, to an article in the Telegraph, rather than the initial survey.

To be clear, five of the six "surveys" cited by the Department of Education in backing up a claim by a cabinet minister were PR-commissioned puff-polls. They were commissioned, not to find out information in a trustworthy and repeatable manner, but to ensure that stories about UKTV Gold, Premier Inn, the Sea Cadets , Bomber Command Memorial and "teacher-set exam revision service" Education Quizzes found their way into UK papers. Some of them may additionally be respectable polling – the Lord Ashcroft poll around Bomber Memorial Command uses a nationally representative sample, non-leading questions, and face-to-face interviews, for instance – but it's the sort of thing which normally rings alarm bells.

The last cited survey isn't a survey. It's a pamphlet on "Freedom, Aspiration and the New Curriculum" from think-tank Politeia. While it agrees with Gove's conclusion, it is hardly a primary source (an ironic distinction to have to make in a discussion about history teaching).

If this the sort of information which is revealed when the Department of Education responds to freedom of information requests, it's becoming clearer why they so rarely do it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.