Stats watchdog launches investigations into ministers' 'disingenuous' use of data

The statistics watchdog has launched two investigations into the government’s “disingenuous” use of education data, with ministers accused of using “smoke and mirrors” to deflect criticism from shrinking budgets.

The UK Statistics Authority is investigating the Department for Education’s use of an OECD finding that the UK is the “third highest spender on education” to defend its own spending on state schools.

The watchdog is also investigating education secretary Damian Hinds’ claim during the Conservative party conference on Tuesday that 1.9 million more children are in “good” or “outstanding” schools than in 2010.

The investigations come just a year after the stats watchdog rapped the department over stalling publication of academy takeover costs, as well as issuing a misleading press release on free schools.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Education Union, said the department’s funding claim was “appalling, and deliberate, deception”, adding it “makes people mad”.

The government published the OECD finding as part of its defence over school funding, as 2,000 headteachers marched on Downing Street in protest of cuts. The line was also used in a later interview by schools minister Nick Gibb.

But the OECD ranking actually includes public and private expenditure on all education institutions, including universities, from 2015.

The BBC revealed this includes tuition fees paid by students, as well as private-school fees paid by parents.

But Schools Week can reveal the figure also includes money universities receive to carry out research, and philanthropic donations to schools, further education providers and unis.

Schools Week re-ran data on the OECD website so only public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP was counted across all countries.

The UK tumbled from third place to 15 for expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP, out of the 36 member countries.

Vic Goddard‏, principal of Passmores Academy in Harlow, said the way the information had been used was “appalling”, while governor Bob Harrison said it was “scandalous behaviour” that would result in dismissal for a headteacher.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added that relying on statistics that “don’t bear any analysis” leaves schools feeling “the DfE is disrespecting them”.

Earlier this week shadow education secretary Angela Rayner also wrote to Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UKSA, urging him to investigate the claim made by Hinds that 1.9 million more children are in “good” or “outstanding” schools than in 2010.

At the time, official records showed the phrase had been used in Parliament 22 times since the start of the year.

The number had already been challenged in July by the Education Policy Institute think tank for failing to consider population growth.

A UKSA spokesperson said the findings from the investigations will be published shortly.

The DfE has been in hot water for its use of stats before. The government was rapped in September last year for delaying publishing costs of academy rebrokers, with the watchdog monitoring the situation.

Hinds has also been censured for an “error” when he claimed in parliament that schools would get a real-terms increase in per-pupil funding.

But the DfE insisted its use of the OECD figure was “true”. A spokesperson added the expenditure figure was “one of several statistics in the OECD report” that prove the UK is among the highest spenders on education at primary and secondary level.