Seeing is not believing

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Thirty-odd years ago I read an excellent book, How to Lie with Statistics by Darryl Huff, which took the holy sepulchre of statistics and blew it to pieces. The little paperback spelled out how this branch of mathematics - a discipline that supposedly cannot lie - was capable of misrepresentation. It showed how the principles of the advertising world had been applied to numbers: repetition, exclusion, innuendo, vagaries, "grey" propaganda, that mischievous mixture of truth and lies and, the most ephemeral, the deceptions we play on ourselves, "if it sounds true, it must be true".

I was reminded of that book when I saw a report of the latest Ofsted review. Whenever I meet a string of percentages, dogmatic statements purporting to be fact, I remember one of the book's maxims: "Ask about the things the figures aren't telling you." So I will. What about the apparently damning: "Out of 300 schools, the English standards in 285 have stalled or fallen." "Oh, you really think so?" as Scots comedian Billy Connolly would say. Standards in what - the minute knowledge base examined in national tests?

We already have English teachers up in arms at the destructive narrowness of the assessment. It says nothing about their abilities as poets, speakers, writers and actors - the real stuff of language development. The statement is meaningless. Let's try another: "An estimated 200,000 children are not reaching expectations in key stage 1 tests." Whose expectations? Those of Whitehall and Westminster? They can't know what the expectations of these children should be. Children are unpredictable and unique; their needs vary. Their teacher will know what to expect, but David Blunkett, Estelle Morris and Charles Clarke do not, and never did. Again, the statement says nothing of importance.

You could take the rest of it apart in the same way. The figures are like fireworks. They soar into the educational sky, burn bright, catch our open-mouthed attention and fizzle out to nothing. All that is left is an empty carcass. They are worthless because they are designed to mislead. You can't encapsulate children's education on paper with tick boxes. It's like the Mad Hatter's tea party in Alice in Wonderland.

Nobody questions anything, however incredulous it seems. Anger at the abuse of these tests is growing. Every week, high-profile professionals from the universities are at last seeing what teachers have known all along. It's time we added our voice to theirs.

Mike Todd teaches in York

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