DfE warned over ministers’ use of data

Statistics regulator flags concern over how statistics are used

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The government’s statistics watchdog has told the Department for Education to publish a set of official figures for school funding, following repeated concerns about how ministers are presenting data to support their claims.

In the latest of a series of warnings to the department about ministers’ use of statistics to back up claims of generous schools funding, Ed Humpherson, head of the UK Statistics Authority’s regulatory arm, told the department it should also examine “not just whether [ministers’] statements correctly quote the statistics, but also whether, in the context, the use being made of them is liable to mislead”.

In a letter to Neil McIvor, DfE’s chief data officer and chief statistician, Humpherson said the regulator had received complaints about ministers’ statements on multiple occasions.

Among others, he criticised schools minister Nick Gibb’s claim on Channel 4 News that the government had “protected school funding in real term terms” since 2010 and that since 2017 had been “giving more money to every local authority for every pupil in every school… [distributed] in a far fairer way than we have in the past”.

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Gibb’s comments did not make clear that he was referring only to schools’ budget for 5 to 16 year olds, Humpherson said, adding that “while data published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies does support his claims, we noted this data is difficult to find, and requires additional analysis”.

Humpherson said that to tackle this problem, it would “help support public understanding if the department were to publish a consistent and comprehensive set of official statistics on school funding, to which all participants in public debate could refer”.

In a separate letter to DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater,  Humpherson said ministers’ use of disparate data sources could make their statements “hard to verify and replicate, and this creates a risk of undermining the perceived trustworthiness of those making the statements”.

“For a meaningful debate about public spending in any area, it is necessary to have a trustworthy data source,” he said.

The letters came a few months after the UKSA launched an investigation after DfE was accused of misrepresenting its spending on education by quoting figures that included university tuition fees.

UKSA head Sir David Norgrove wrote to education secretary Damian Hinds in October saying he had “serious concerns about the Department for Education’s presentation and use of statistics”, after the department used OECD figures “in such a way as to misrepresent changes in school funding”.

DfE perm sec Slater acknowledged at the time that the department needed to “improve our performance”, and Humpherson’s letter yesterday acknowledged that it had made progress.

“I have been encouraged by the steps you and your colleagues have taken to improve your communication of statistics – for example by improving the process which ensures statements released by the Department for Education are cleared by relevant analysts,” he said in his letter to Slater.

Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said the level of school funding was “an area of public interest, but also of real confusion”.

He told PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World: “ It is easy to get lost in claims and counter-claims based on different numbers. The UK Statistics Authority is right, therefore, to ask the education department to publish official statistics on the levels of school funding, so that everybody can have a shared set of facts.”

Sam Trendall

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