Supping with the Panda hunters

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Let's imagine that the Department for Education and Skills could be compared to a lunatic asylum. Far-fetched, we know, but bear with us. In the entrance area, individuals smile benignly, wave to visitors and look normal. The only sign that we are in an institution is an inmate with a stubbly beard and a wild-eyed stare jumping around behind glass on an upper floor. He thinks he runs the place and he shouts at the inmates below, wildly expounding his Napoleonic master plan.

Move through the building and the scenes become more disturbing. There are screams from closed rooms and doctors run around with dripping syringes.

Eventually, we come to a locked steel door. Our guide tells us we are entering the "special unit". There are three more doors along a long, starkly-lit corridor, then a final, bolted barrier. There is a shiny sign: "The Statistics Department".

Inside, the inhabitants are engaged in heated debate about "Pandas", which they seem to think are not moody bamboo eaters but books of obscure figures comparing school "performance" relative to something called "free school meals". One disturbed inmate shouts: "Since the relationship of performance to free school meals is non-linear, we propose to use the logarithm of the cube of the percentage of pupils on free schools meals to help to regulate this feature." As there are no "straight line relationships" between free meals and performance "it might be better to model performance using cubic splines".

He says he will be sending you a 21-page document presenting his ideas on "Panda reform" with around 30 appendices with really "interesting" multi-level modelling results. You retreat double-bolting the door. Nobody could be that mad. Could they?

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