Education ministers have been issued with a stark warning from the statistics watchdog over attempts to “exaggerate” and distort data on the schools crisis.
In an extraordinary letter to the Department for Education (DfE), Sir David Norgrove said ministers risk undermining public trust and he had “serious concerns” about four separate incidents.
Distorted claims made in one tweet, one blog and two statements made by ministers failed to “give a full picture” about schools, Norgrove, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said.
A tweet issued by DfE last month claimed “there is more money going to our schools than ever before”, Norgrove said figures “misrepresent changes in school funding” by not adjusting for per pupil spend, and overall spending was therefore “exaggerated”.
In a blog from the press office, which has since been updated, the government compared the UK with other countries’ schools funding.
But the pot of UK cash referred to appeared larger because it included “a wide range of education expenditures” not related to schools, said Norgrove.
He said: “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.”
In a letter responding Education Secretary Damian Hinds said funding was rising to £45.5bn, but admitted: “Of course, I recognise that pupil numbers are rising, we are asking schools to do more and schools are facing cost pressures.”
The letter also rebukes Hinds personally for telling delegates at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham that there are 1.9m more children in good or outstanding schools since 2010.
Again, Norgrove said the claim “does not give a full picture”, pointing out it ignored increasing pupil numbers and and the fact that 579,000 pupils are at schools that have not been inspected since at least 2010.
Hinds countered that the proportion of children in schools “whose last Ofsted judgement was good or outstanding has risen from 66% in 2010 to 86% in March 2018” but to “make this more intelligible” it was expressed as a percentage.
He added that Ofsted inspections are only triggered by an “unexpected fall in exam performance”
The letter also chides Schools Minister Nick Gibb, who last week wrote that the reading ability of nine-year-olds in England had “leapfrogged up the rankings last year, after decades of falling standards, going from 19th out of 50 countries to 8th.”
But, Norgrove said, in truth it had jumped from 10th in 2011 to 8th in 2016.
In response, Hinds said DfE “could have been clearer that the improvement from 19th to 8th was between 2006 and 2016”.
The senior civil servant concludes: “I am sure you share my concerns that instances such as these do not help to promote trust and confidence in official data, and indeed risk undermining them.
“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.”
The watchdog’s director-general for regulation, Ed Humpherson will contact Jonathan Slater, Permanent Secretary at the DfE, to help “improve its practice”.
Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, said the letter was a “humiliating rebuke”.
She said: “They need to come clean and stop deceiving the public in a desperate attempt to cover up their shocking record.
“They have used misleading figures on school funding to hide the fact that they have cut billions of pounds from school budgets, leaving head-teachers forced to beg for donations from parents to pay for books and stationary.
“And their claims on school standards are now in tatters. Instead of relying on discredited statistics they should use the Budget to invest in schools and genuinely improve standards.”
The highly-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies found that per-puil funding had fallen by 8% since 2010, with rising numbers of pupils and budget cuts affecting the figure.
A DfE spokeswoman insisted that the government was “investing in schools” and that the department would respond to the letter “in due course”.
Hinds said: “We are looking into the precise issues that you raise, and the Permanent Secretary will write to the UKSA shortly with a more detailed response.”