The story behind Nicky Morgan’s “one in three pupils” statistic

Education secretary Nicky Morgan opened her speech at the Conservative party conference today with this statistic:


There’s no doubting it’s a hard-hitting statistic. But how true is it?

First of all, for such an important speech – coming a few days after Ms Morgan apparently put her hat in the ring to be the party’s next leader – it’s interesting NiMo chose a statistic with which she has such a chequered past.

Back in 2014 the education secretary said in Parliament: “Under the previous Labour Government one in three of our young people were leaving primary school unable to read and write. That is a shocking statistic.”

But she was rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority for her use of the statistic, with watchdog chair Sir Andrew Dilnot urging Ms Morgan to “reconsider her comments”.

(The UK Statistics Authority is an arm’s length, non-ministerial department set up to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good)

Ms Morgan wrote back to say she misspoke and ommitted “and add-up” in her statement.

She cited figures which showed 36 per cent of pupils in 2010 failed to achieve a level four or above in reading, writing and maths – which is true.

But Sir Andrew argued that definitions for those children who achieve a level three show they can:

– read a range of texts fluently and accurately

– write in a way which is often organised, imaginative and clear

– add and subtract numbers with two digits mentally and numbers with three digits using written methods

In 2010, 91 per cent of pupils gained level three or above in reading, 93 per cent in writing and 93 per cent in maths.

Ms Morgan backed up her claim by saying: “This government and the last made a policy decision that level four is the expected standard that we expect all young people to reach.”


Morgan Full Fact



So what’s changed since then?

The insertion of the word “properly” at the end of the statement seems to have cleared up the above wrangle.

Basically, Ms Morgan is saying children can’t read, write and add up properly unless they achieve a level four at key stage 2.

(Still, despite the above government definitions saying they can read fluently and accurately etc).

Full Fact, an independent factchecking charity, has blogged to say the numbers are now accurate.

It has also welcomed Ms Morgan’s added caution by inserting “properly” to the statistic.


But there is still debate about the meaning of the word “properly”.

As Amy Sippitt, the education lead at Full Fact, helpfully puts it:

“It’s up to you whether you think the Education Secretary’s definition of ‘properly’ is high aspiration or exaggeration.” 



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  1. Janet Downs

    A child with Level 3 can ‘read a range of texts fluently and accurately. According to Morgan, this is not being able to read ‘properly’. According to Cambridge Dictionaries Online, ‘properly’ means ‘correctly, or in a ​satisfactory way.’ It follows that ‘fluently and accurately’ meets the criteria of ‘properly’ – unless, of course, you’re a Secretary of State for Education.

  2. You state that Morgen ‘cited figures which showed 36 per cent of pupils in 2010 failed to achieve a level four or above in reading, writing and maths – which is true.” NO. It is not true, according to the BBC, who report that 81% of children achieved level 4 in English in 2010

    81% is exactly the figure Nicky Morgan trumpets as her own success. The Conservatives therefore have not improved Sat results in the last five years. Or did the BBC get it wrong?

    • Janet Downs

      The difficulty with reporting SAT results is that English in 2010 had two components: English Reading and English Writing. Morgan’s ‘1 in 3’ figure came from combining English (Reading and Writing) with Maths. That’s why she said a third could not read, write and do sums ‘properly’. Government figures for 2010 show 73% reached Level 4 in English (Reading and Writing) and Maths.
      That means 27% (not 33.3%) did not reach Level 4 and 7% failed to reach Level 3 in all three subjects.

      • Janet Downs

        I need an edit button. That last sentence should read:
        That means 27% (not 33.3%) did not reach Level 4 in all three subjects (slightly less than 1 in 3). The same Government figures reveal 7% failed to reach Level 3 in these three subjects.

  3. Why is it that when there were year on year improvements in results under Labour this was attributed to grade inflation but the same phenomenum under this government is attributed to improving standards?