When the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) last week released its international school ranking tables for 2009 there was a great deal of press coverage about the UK's decline over the past few years.
However while the Guardian, the Sun, the Telegraph and the Mirror all reported that the UK had fallen from 17th, 24th and 14th in reading, maths and science respectively to 25th 28th and 16th since 2006, a few publications branched out in portraying a much steeper decline over the course of a decade.
Here are a few examples:
"Although spending has risen from £35.8 billion to £71 billion, the education of teenagers has failed to register any improvement and in some areas has deteriorated rapidly. In stunning proof that taxpayers did not get value for money, the UK slipped from eighth to 28th in maths, from seventh to 25th in reading and from fourth to 16th in science over the same period."
Daily Mail, 8 December 2010
"In 2000, when 32 countries took part in the survey, the UK came 7th in reading skills - but the figures for 2009 show that out of 65 countries and regions, the UK has fallen to 25th place."
BBC News, 7 December 2010
"In 2000, the year the survey began — carried out with tests in the three subjects on 15-year-olds — the UK was fourth in science, seventh in reading and eighth in maths."
The Independent, 8 December 2010
The education sections at the Daily Mail and Independent have already been found wanting by Full Fact in recent months, making up two parts of a triumvirate of papers we referred to the Press Complaints Commission over its inaccurate reporting of a special educational needs story back in September. We actually singled out the BBC for special praise in its reporting of that story, being the only media outlet we contacted to actually check its figures at source.
However in this instance it appears that the Beeb, along with the Daily Mail and the Independent, has been less than impressive with its use of the statistics.
A glance at the ranking positions of the UK in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tables since 2000 would seem to suggest that the Daily Mail, BBC and Independent are justified in drawing the conclusions that they do.
Certainly the numbers that they quote tally with those in PISA: the UK did indeed rank seventh in reading, eighth in maths and fourth in science in 2000.
However the OECD have made it explicit that these ranking positions should not be compared with those from 2006 or 2009.
In a release entitled 'Viewing the United Kingdom School System Through the Prism of PISA', the Organisation notes: "Trend comparisons, which are a feature of the PISA 2009 reporting are not reported here because for the United Kingdom it is only possible to compare 2006 and 2009 data. As the PISA 2000 and PISA 2003 samples for the United Kingdom did not meet the PISA response-rate standards, no trend comparisons are possible with these years."
But perhaps the media is not solely responsible for this interpretation of this story.
The Department for Education (DfE) also ignored this guidance and compared the 2000 figures with those from 2006 and 2009.
In a press notice issued on the day that the study was released, Michael Gove's Department claimed that: "England has continued to fall in the PISA rankings, meaning that in just nine years we have dropped from 7th to 25th in reading, 8th to 27th in mathematics and 4th to 16th in science."
The DfE then proceeded to reproduce a table (reproduced below) comparing the results of the 2000, 2006 and 2009 studies in a news story, neglecting to mention the OECD's insistence that the data is incompatible.
This was echoed in a Conservative Party press release, which commented on a "marked decline in science, reading and maths between 2000 and 2009."
Given that even the Department for Education failed to follow the OECD's guidance on the use of the data from its PISA study, it is perhaps remarkable and praiseworthy that the Guardian, the Sun, the Telegraph and the Mirror all resisted the temptation to reach the same misleading conclusions.
However this cannot be said of their colleagues at the Daily Mail and BBC, who both comment explicitly on the comparison of the 2000 and 2009 figures. The Independent has also included the 2000 rankings without attaching the OECD's caveat, although it should be noted in mitigation that the paper leaves the 'slump' from these positions to the readers' inference.
We are awaiting a response from the DfE on their use of these figures, and will be requesting corrections and clarifications if necessary.
We would like to thank Full Fact reader Janet Downs for drawing our attention to this story.