The UK Statistics Authority (the body which oversees how the government produces and communicate official statistics) has today written to the Department for Education to express “serious concerns” about the Department’s “presentation and use of statistics”. As the letter notes, this has been an ongoing issue at this particular department - in fact, this is the fifth time in the last twelve months that the Statistics Authority has written to the department critiquing how they use statistics.
There are several complaints, but the main one revolves around the department’s claims on school funding. In a tweet, a blog post (since updated), and in comments by the Minister for School Standards on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the department used figures for education spending that had the potential to be misleading. In particular, both the blog post and the radio interview included the claim that the UK is the third highest spender on education among the OECD group of developed countries. This is technically accurate, but as the BBC subsequently reported, that figure for “spending” includes private spending as well as government spending, across all forms of education - for example, it includes tuition fees paid by university students.
As the Statistics Authority say in their letter, “the context would clearly lead readers to expect that the figures referred to spending on schools”.
Meanwhile the Royal Statistical Society - the UK-based professional body for statisticians - went even further, with its president Sir David Spiegelhalter saying “For a Department that is in charge of the nation’s numerical skills, this is getting embarrassing. Ministers need to get a grip and ensure they use numbers in a trustworthy way.”
Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, responded to the Statistics Authority in a letter in which he agreed that the department’s statistics should be “both factually accurate and used in the right context” - although he also defended the broad thrust of the claims the department had made.
These are important issues that can have impacts beyond the field of education. In our recent paper, Tackling Misinformation in an Open Society, we wrote that “the government, and politicians more widely, need to recognise the extent to which their own behaviour drives mistrust and can undermine the ability of our public institutions to defend us from misinformation”.
Examples like this only serve to highlight the point: the government has a responsibility to be accurate and honest in its use of statistics, and a failure to do so risks eroding trust in any effort to combat misinformation. As the UK’s independent factchecking organisation we agree with the criticisms made by both the Statistics Authority and the Royal Statistical Society, and hope that the Education Secretary’s pledge of a “continued commitment” to “the integrity of statistics and informing the public debate” means that the Department for Education will work to improve its use and communication of statistics as a matter of urgency.