The website https://www.phrases.org.uk suggests that the full saying “There are three kinds of falsehoods, lies, damned lies and statistics” is from Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, as quoted in the Manchester Guardian, 29th June 1892. No matter, but worth noting that the public has been very wary of government for at least 120 years on its choice of statistics to use to back its decisions or blow its own trumpet.
It is no surprise to any of us in Education that the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has now chosen to write to the Department for Education (DfE) for the fifth time; it has already done so on four occasions in the past year about its use of statistics, it said in a letter to Damian Hinds, the education secretary. It is now investigating this fifth complaint, on international comparisons of school funding. Sir David has called for a meeting with Jonathan Slater, the DfE’s permanent secretary, and sought reassurance that the DfE would “observe the statutory code of and sought reassurance that in future the DfE would observe the statutory code of practice for statistics.
What worries us all in Education is that whenever we hear the parliamentary representatives with responsibility for Education, such as Damien Hinds, Secretary of State or Nick Gibb, Schools minister, they speak with great authority and confidence of a state education sector that none of us actually recognise, in terms of funding, teacher recruitment and curriculum matters.
And the DfE, having used statistics to further their own aims, continue with their general standpoint that investment in UK education is amongst the highest in the developed world. This fact may indeed be true, in much the same way as the house prices in the UK are amongst the highest in the world, but does that make ‘housing’ per se better than similar countries in the developed world? Or does the investment by UK PLC in the railways make our railways amongst the best in the world too. Here’s an OECD graph that highlights the sheer cost of childcare in the UK:
Given the high level of anecdotal evidence that funding has been slashed to the bone arising in individual schools throughout the country, highly visible in news bulletins and indeed Court decisions highlighting the same, I really don’t know how the DfE or indeed its master, the elected government finds it in their water to sustain a conversation using statistics for which there is no integrity, and for which its own watchdog has called it out.
Here’s another internationally renowned statistician on the matter: “For a department that is in charge of the nation’s numerical skills, this is getting embarrassing,” said Sir David Spiegelhalter, president of the Royal Statistical Society. “Ministers need to get a grip!”
Indeed they do Sir David, indeed they do.