DfE rapped by watchdog over use of statistics - again

UK Statistics Authority urges DfE to publish 'consistent set' of funding statistics

Will Hazell

DfE statistics

The Department for Education has once again been censured by an official watchdog over its use of statistics.

The UK Statistics Authority wrote to the department yesterday urging it to publish a "consistent and comprehensive set of official statistics". 

Background: UK stats watchdog investigates DfE funding claims

The problem: Four ways the DfE misled the public

The response: 'We need to improve', says DfE in stats row

Ed Humpherson, the director general for regulation at the UK Statistics Authority, wrote to Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the DfE, and Neil McIvor, the department's chief data officer and chief statistician.

In his letter to Mr McIvor, Mr Humpherson said he welcomes "improvements made to enhance the quality and trustworthiness of statements" released by the DfE.

But he added: "Despite these improvements, we continue to hear concerns from the public about some statements made by the department and its ministers.

"Your department has strived to improve the technical accuracy of statements made on school funding. However, we have concerns with the presentation of school funding figures."

He refers to an appearance by the school standards minister, Nick Gibb, on Channel 4. "It was not clear from the minister’s statements that he was referring to schools’ budget for five to 16-year-olds only.

"While data published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies does support his claims, we noted this data is difficult to find, and requires additional analysis."

Mr Humpherson said he believes "it would help support public understanding if the department were to publish a consistent and comprehensive set of official statistics on school funding, to which all participants in public debate could refer".

The letter continued: "We have also heard concerns about other statistics used by the department’s ministers.

"For example, we received a complaint about the replicability of music GCSE figures by [Nick Gibb] in an oral evidence session in the House of Commons, and another about the use of statistics about the improved outcomes for sponsored academies since 2010 which was based on analysis up until the end of October 2017.

"In light of these issues, we have discussed the importance of ensuring that statements are based on accurate, up to date analysis, which can be verified through publicly available data and analysis."

Mr Humpherson added: "I would encourage you to focus on not just whether the statements correctly quote the statistics, but also whether, in the context, the use being made of them is liable to mislead."

The letter sent to Mr Slater pressed the DfE to introduce regular statistics on school funding.

"For a meaningful debate about public spending in any area, it is necessary to have a trustworthy data source," Mr Humpherson wrote. 

"In that context, we note that the department does not produce a comprehensive set of official statistics on the funding of schools. A wide range of data sources on school funding are currently used to inform debate, by both the department and others.

"This in turn can mean that statements using data are hard to verify and replicate, and this creates a risk of undermining the perceived trustworthiness of those making the statements.

"We are therefore encouraged that the department is considering the potential for publishing regular official statistics on school funding, and formally recommend that you do so."

Last year, the UK Statistics Authority reprimanded the Department of Education for using misleading figures to make itself look better.

Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School, West Sussex, and co-ordinator of the Worth Less? campaign for more school funding, said: "Relentlessly reasonable headteachers will continue to give an accurate picture of our school funding crisis and will always be available to meet [education secretary Damian Hinds] to help try and improve matters as we move towards the critical comprehensive spending review.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We always strive to make data as clear and accessible as possible. We continue to work closely with the UKSA to identify further improvements.”

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Will Hazell

Will Hazell

Will Hazell is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @whazell

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