DfE reprimanded by stats watchdog for sharing protected data with unauthorised staff

The Department for Education has received its second reprimand from the UK Statistics Authority in two months, after it shared unreleased statistics with staff who are not authorised to see them, breaking so-called “pre-release access” rules.

The department was criticised in late September for delaying data releases and providing unclear information to the public, and is now in trouble again over the way information is shared between staff in the department before being made public.

According to the statistics watchdog, the DfE has made three recent breaches of a rule which prevents certain staff from seeing information like exam results before it published.

Public opinion supports the idea that we should all see the numbers at the same time

The department’s code of practice states that only certain members of staff are granted “pre-release access” that allows them to see this protected information.

This rule has been broken three times since September, leading to a written reprimand from Ed Humpherson, the UK Stats Authority’s director general for regulation.

The incidents involved the results of the phonics screening check and key stage 1 assessments, released in September; the provisional outcomes of the key stage 2 national curriculum assessments from November; and a further education and skills statistical release from October.

“In each case communications or policy staff who had been granted pre-release access shared official statistics with individuals within the department ahead of the publication of the data,” Humpherson wrote in a letter to DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater.

In the case of the phonics statistics, the breach involved a ministerial op-ed for a newspaper that contained figures from the embargoed data being emailed to seven officials who did not have pre-release access.

The breach relating to key stage 2 data involved headlines from a statistical release containing restricted data being emailed to two shared mailboxes, which were available to 16 people without pre-release access.

None of the breaches resulted in information being shared outside the department.

“Repeated breaches of pre-release access pose a significant risk to the trustworthiness of the department, and have the potential to undermine the independence of government statistics,” Humpherson said.

He added that “more effective and timely measures” were needed to stop the problems happening again.

However, he did acknowledge that the breaches had been reported openly, and the department was making efforts to “reinforce” pre-release access procedures and improve staff understanding of the code of practice through further training.

The Royal Statistical Society has been running a campaign to end pre-release access to official statistics for ministers and their political and media advisers since 2014.

Hetan Shah, the society’s executive director, criticised the latest breaches, saying it was “high time” the DfE abandoned the practice.

“Public opinion supports the idea that we should all see the numbers at the same time. The Office for National Statistics stopped the practice of pre-release access earlier this year and its time DfE and other government departments followed suit.”

It’s not the first time this term that the DfE has been slapped on the wrist over its use of statistics.

Humpherson wrote to the department on September 25, to censure it for delaying data releases and providing unclear information to the public.

At the time Humpherson criticised the way the DfE had handled the publication of data on academy transfers, reported extensively by Schools Week.

The “extended timeframe between promising the release of data and its publication was excessive”, he said. He advised officials working on statistics to “publish development or work plans for new and existing statistics, especially those cited in Freedom of Information responses, indicating likely release dates where feasible”.

He added that the Statistics Authority would be monitoring the DfE “in the coming weeks and months”.