Sum total of statistics

25th September 1998 at 01:00
LINDA Croxford's letter (TESS, September 11) pointing out the way the Audit Unit has made misleading use of research figures on the potential impact of schools on pupil achievement is interesting because it adds to a catalogue of such incidents.

In the paper Setting Targets - Raising Standards in Schools there is the following statement, in bold type for emphasis: "In terms of the target measures themselves, across all schools, over 16,000 pupils will attain a higher level each year". This figure of 16,000 is totally misleading.

Firstly, it is reached by summing the actual number of increased awards for each target which will be achieved if all the targets are met.

However, one pupil may achieve more than one increased award so, as your report correctly states, the number applies to awards, not pupils. Unfortunately, the less numerate daily papers take the Audit Unit's statement at face value and continue to use the quote in terms of pupils.

When challenged on the point, the Audit Unit said the use of "pupils" rather than "awards" was a slip. The language and bold type of the statement makes it clear that it was a pretty deliberate slip, one designed to mislead. However, the situation is worse than this. The targets are to be achieved over a three-year period and so the gains will not be "each year" as the Audit Unit's bold statement asserts.

But the most serious error in the whole process is that the figure is arrived at by double counting. The increase in Standard grade awards in English and maths level 1-6 are counted quite separately from the increase in the numbers getting five-plus Standard grades 1-6 whereas of course the latter figure is likely to include at least some of those getting English and maths.

A further example of the Audit Unit's use of figures in a deliberately misleading way was when they issued figures showing an apparent decline in the uptake of a Higher modern language from 36 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent in 1996.

Enquiries established that these were not percentages of the whole year cohort - which is how such figures are normally given - but were percentages of those actually in the fifth years at the relevant times. No account was taken of the fact that over the 21-year period the percentages staying on into fifth year increased enormously and that the nature of the pupils staying on changed.

Of course, these are all complicated issues, and the Audit Unit, while complaining about low levels of numeracy, depends on our poor understanding of number in order to get away with its misleading use of statistics. What they should know is that, like Bill Clinton, once they have been caught in a lie it is hard to believe that they are ever telling the truth.

Alison Kirby


Judith Gillespie

Development manager

Scottish Parent Teacher Council

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