Education surveys and benefit statistics: two government departments caught out in one week

13 May 2013

OPINION: Education Secretary Michael Gove wrote last month that "survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real." He was writing in response to a letter in the Independent from 100 academics who were attacking his new National Curriculum. 

Janet Downs, a retired teacher and education campaigner, managed to get hold of the source for Mr Gove's claims through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.  

They turned out to be based on a poll commissioned by UKTV Gold. When Ms Downs pressed the Department further, they also cited evidence from the hotel chain Premier Inn and London Mums Magazine. 

The Department couldn't give Ms Downs the details of the poll, and presumably never had them, because it was "commissioned and conducted by UKTV Gold". This comes across as risible when Mr Gove has gone on to trumpet both the value of citizens being knowledgeable about politics and the importance of critical thinking. 

In his article he wrote that in brilliant schools students "…acquire the stock of knowledge required to take their place in a modern democracy  — how to communicate in formal settings, appreciate the arguments in newspapers' leading articles and understand the context behind big political decisions."

It's rich soil for amusing commentary on the Education Department's research standards, but we'll leave that fun to others

Meanwhile, it's time for MPs to back up the statistics watchdog

A few weeks ago the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, released some new figures. Mr Duncan Smith said the figures showed that 8,000 people have moved into work because of the benefits cap. Last week the boss of the statistics watchdog wrote to the minister to tell him that his claim was "unsupported by official statistics published by the Department" - that is, the minister's own department.

We might find it absurd when advertising is used to underpin curriculum policy. But when independent statistics are undermined by such high profile official misuse, we need a more adequate response than laughter. We are looking to the UK Statistics Authority and Parliament for decisive action, and have written to the relevant select committees. 

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