“1.9 million more children are now in good and outstanding schools, compared with 2010, and part of that is the result of the reforms we have made to education”.
Theresa May, 10 October 2018
On Monday this week, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority wrote to the Department for Education to express concern about a number of statistics it has presented. One of these was the claim that there are 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools since 2010.
The Statistics Authority said: “While accurate as far as it goes, this figure does not give a full picture.”
This is because much of the increase could be down to rising pupil numbers—there were 560,000 more pupils in state-funded schools in England in 2017 compared to 2010—and changes to inspection practices. 579,000 pupils attend schools that are rated as good or outstanding but have not been inspected since at least 2010, and inspection practices mean schools rated below “good” are prioritised for inspection.
On Wednesday, the claim was repeated by the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions—albeit with something of a caveat about the government only being responsible for “part” of that increase.
However, this caveat does not fully spell out how much uncertainty there is around this number. It would be more helpful to public debate if the government made this uncertainty clear, or stopped using this statistic completely.
Honesty in public debate matters
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Pupil numbers are going up
“Good” and “outstanding” are the two highest ratings schools can be given by Ofsted (the schools inspector in England). Schools that don’t meet this standard are rated as “requiring improvement” or “inadequate”.
There were 1.9 million more pupils in state-funded primary schools rated “good” or “outstanding” in England in August 2017, compared to August 2010.
But this isn’t all down to improving standards in schools. The number of pupils in state-funded schools increased by 560,000 (7%) between 2010 and 2017—so the sheer increase in number of pupils will contribute significantly to the number of pupils in good or outstanding schools.
The Education Policy Institute argues that pupils who started school after 2010 are more likely to have chosen a school if it was rated good or outstanding. It estimates that 578,000 of the 1.9 million increase is down to a combination of increasing pupil numbers, and pupil choices about which school to attend.
Changes to inspection practices may overstate the increase
A more meaningful comparison is to look at the percentage of pupils in good or outstanding schools. This still shows a rise: 66% of pupils were in good or outstanding schools in August 2010, compared to 88% in August 2017.
But this rise is also likely to be overstated, as Ofsted has not inspected a small but significant proportion of schools since 2010—meaning we can’t be sure if they are still of the same standard.
“579,000 pupils attend schools that are rated as good or outstanding but have not been inspected since at least 2010” according to the Education Policy Institute. Overall, there were around eight million pupils in state-funded schools in England in 2017.
This effect is driven by a government policy where outstanding schools don’t have to be re-inspected unless there is a significant drop in exam results, while schools rated below good or outstanding are prioritised for re-inspection.
A National Audit Office report from 2018 said: “The older an inspection judgement, the greater the risk that it is no longer accurate.”
It added: “exempting outstanding schools from routine re-inspection reduces the extent to which Ofsted’s inspectors see outstanding schools, and therefore the extent to which they can compare with and reference outstanding practice.”
Moreover, changing inspection practices in 2012 are likely to have contributed to an increased number of schools being rated good or outstanding.
In 2012, the government changed the rating “satisfactory” (the one below “good”) to “requires improvement”, and “good” became the minimum expected standard for schools.
The Education Policy Institute notes that this change in ratings was followed by a step change in the number of primary schools (but not secondaries) improving at inspection in the following year (rising from 48% to 57%). It theorises that inspectors were less likely to give the new “requires improvement” rating, as it was more punitive for schools.
It accepts that the point above is not a “full analysis of the issue”. However, it underlines the level of uncertainty around what is driving the increasing number of pupils in good or outstanding schools.