When the numbers add up to zero

Listening to David Miliband, the Minister for School Standards in England who was on a cross border sortie last week to look at Scottish education, was to be buried alive under statistics.

The figures came in an endless stream designed to put the point of the moment apparently beyond challenge. Unfortunately, his use of figures was more by way of a misuse, with a considerable dash of mischief and deceit.

Early on in his speech he said that four out of five jobs created between now and 2010 would demand skill levels above A level or Highers and that currently only a third of Britons have that skill compared to three-quarters of Germans.

Clearly the juxtaposition of these statistics was meant to imply that they are directly comparable and a valid indication of "qualification shortfall" in this country. They are neither.

First, the Minister was talking about new jobs to be created in the next eight years and comparing this with the current qualification level of people - not the qualification level that will exist in eight years time. He was pitting a projection based on assumption against current fact.

Second, changing patterns of work mean that jobs disappear as well as get created and the Minister did not indicate how many of the new jobs would be replacements for jobs of a similar qualification requirement that had disappeared.

Third, the Minister did not indicate what proportion the new jobs were of the total number of jobs, so we were left with no idea of the total proportion of jobs that would actually require this high level of qualification.

However, if we move to his assertion that only a third of Britons currently have skill levels above A level and Higher, it is hard to work out what this means. Did the term "Britons" really include everyone from the newest baby to the oldest pensioner or was he just referring to the working population?

Even if it was the latter, the flat statistic hides the fact that the proportion with skill at this level is not uniform across the ages, as it was not common in previous generations for so many people to take Highers or go to university.

However, the skill level amongst recent and future school leavers will be much higher as participation rates and examination passes are on the increase, so by 2010 the proportion of the work force under the age of 40 qualified above A level and Higher will be considerably greater than a third.

Those who listened to David Miliband were given a classic example of "education by numbers" much beloved by politicians who wish to appear masters of their brief. The numbers mean nothing.

However the process does help fulfill the "more skilled jobs" prophesy as the numbers-audit game needs people to manage it and is a form of middle class job creation. Whether it does much for either the economy or real education is doubtful.

Judith Gillespie

Development Manager

Scottish Parent Teacher Council

George Street, Edinburgh

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