Statistics watchdog tells Education Department of ‘serious concerns’ on data use

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The chairman of the UK Statistics Authority has told the Education Secretary he has “serious concerns” about his department’s use of statistics.

In a letter to Damian Hinds, Sir David Norgrove said he is worried about the Department for Education’s (DfE) presentation and use of statistics.

He urged the DfE to ensure data are properly presented “in a way that does not mislead”.

The head of the watchdog added: “The UK Statistics Authority has had cause to publicly write to the Department with concerns on four occasions in the past year.

“I regret that the Department does not yet appear to have resolved issues with its use of statistics.”

Sir David also mentioned that last week the minister for school standards Nick Gibb wrote that in an international survey of reading abilities of nine-year-olds, England “leapfrogged up the rankings last year, after decades of falling standards, going from 19th out of 50 countries to 8th”.

He said this was “not correct” and that the data showed the increase was from 10th place in 2011 to 8th in 2016.

Sir David said his attention had been drawn to a recent tweet and blog issued by the DfE regarding education funding.

He noted that the authority’s director general for regulation Ed Humpherson had also written to the DfE saying figures were presented in such a way as to “misrepresent changes in school funding”.

Sir David continued: “In the tweet, school spending figures were exaggerated by using a truncated axis, and by not adjusting for per pupil spend.

“In the blog about government funding of schools (which I note your Department has now updated), an international comparison of spend which included a wide range of education expenditure unrelated to publicly funded schools was used, rather than a comparison of school spending alone.

“The result was to give a more favourable picture. Yet the context would clearly lead readers to expect that the figures referred to spending on schools.”

Sir David concluded by saying that he sought assurances the DfE remained committed to the principles and practices defined in the statutory Code of Practice for Statistics.

“In particular, I urge the Department to involve analysts closely in the development of its communications, to ensure that data are properly presented in a way that does not mislead,” he said.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “The most recent volume of the OECD’s Education at a Glance report said in 2015 among G7 nations, the UK Government spent the highest percentage of GDP on institutions delivering primary and secondary education.

“This is one of several statistics in the OECD report that demonstrate the UK is among the highest spenders on education at primary and secondary level, whether you look at spend as a share of GDP, spend as a share of government spending or spend per pupil.

“Other independently verified statistics show the Government is investing in schools – the IFS found that real-terms per pupil funding in 2020 will be over 50% higher than it was in 2000.

“It is true to say that the OECD has ranked the UK as the third highest for education funding – this includes tertiary and private education for every country.”

Replying to Sir David’s letter, Mr Hinds addressed individual concerns, saying there was a need to be clear about different kinds of funding and spending.

Mr Hinds continued: “On overall school funding, core funding is rising to £43.5 billion by 2019-20. Of course, I recognise that pupil numbers are rising, we are asking schools to do more and schools are facing cost pressures.”

With regard to the reading abilities statistics, he agreed the DfE could have been clearer that the improvement from 19th to 8th was between 2006 and 2016.

“Naturally we want to ensure we always present those factually accurate statements, and all others, in line with your Code of Practice for Statistics and I look forward to working with your team further on that,” the Education Secretary said.

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