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.

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.