Dodgy statistics – it’s all the Department for Education has

Dfe University attendance statistic for "white working class boys" by school type

On November 10th, the Department For Education published a series of tweets aimed at promoting the idea that grammar schools are good. One of these tweets contained a seriously skewed statistic which the DfE clearly thought was going to show that grammar schools delivered better outcomes for white working class children than comprehensives schools did…and then the twitterverse took them to task and instead showed how it actually showed the opposite.

Now don’t go wasting your time going looking for this tweet, because once they had been shown the error of their ways they took the tweet down. It was there for less than two and a half hours so you could easily have missed it. Fortunately some had the foresight to screenshot it (see below). In case you missed it, the text of the tweet went like this…

“70% of white working class boys from grammars go to uni vs 54% from comprehensives. What do you think about grammars”

Department for Education University Attendance Tweet

Initial replies to this focused on the fact that the final sentence should have been finished with a question mark (shame on the DfE for its lack of grammar) but they were very soon joined by a mass of people pointing out that the comparison was neither fair nor did it promote grammars.

Let’s look at this statistic more closely, putting in some numbers. Let’s assume that we have 200 white working class boys (setting aside the rather shameful notion that we should be focusing specifically on that demographic rather than all children) and that of these 200 children, 100 go to school in a selective area whilst the remaining 100 go to school in an area that has only Comprehensive schools.

Now, as we know, in selective areas, only approximately 20% of the school cohort will pass the 11+ and be accepted into a grammar school meaning that of our 100 boys, only 20 will be at a grammar school. The statistic tells us that 70% of these boys will go to university meaning that of our original 100 white working class boys from the selective area, only 14 will go to university.

So what about the Comprehensive area? Well, as you know, in such areas every child attends the same type of school so all 100 boys make it into our Comprehensive school. The statistic tells us that 54% of these will go on to university meaning that, of course, 54 white working class boys from our Comprehensive area go on to university.

Just 14 boys from the area with Grammar schools versus 54 boys from the Comprehensive area.

You can see why the Department for Education might have deleted their tweet so soon after publishing it but what I find particularly worrying about the fact that they published it at all is that, in their tearing desire to show Grammar schools in a good light and to try and find some actual evidence to support their plan to expand selection they are completely ignoring the 80% of children in selective areas that do not get into grammar schools. Had they used the data more even handedly, they would have compared the entire cohort from a selective area against the entire cohort from a comprehensive area exactly as I have done above. But, of course, that wouldn’t have given them any evidence so, instead, they chose to ignore those 80%…and that’s exactly what they plan to do if they actually carry out their plans. They’ll ignore the 80% of your children that don’t make it into a grammar school.

Of course the chart that I have illustrated this article with isn’t fair either since the Department for Education hasn’t told us how many children that attended a Secondary Modern went on to attend university, so I all I can do is illustrate that as a grey “unknown” block. But then this just further illustrates my point, the Department for Education isn’t interested in these children and would rather we didn’t talk about the existence of Secondary Modern schools at all. No doubt many children from these schools do go on to attend a university but, if, when combined with those from the grammar school, it exceeded the performance of the Comprehensive system surely the Department for Education would have included that in their propaganda tweet.

Don’t let Theresa May, Justine Greening and Maidenhead Council ignore 80% of our children – fight for our excellent Comprehensive schools and an Excellent Education for Everyone.


Not only has the Department for Education withdrawn their tweet but they’ve also been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority for its content. Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the UK Statistics Authority has written to the DfE due to two elements of the tweet. They make the same point that we do about the comparison between Grammar schools and Comprehensive schools being entirely unreasonable but also pull them up for using the phrase “white working class boys” because the DfE does not collect information on pupils’ socioeconomic status or whether they would be identified as working class so cannot make this claim. You can read the letter here.

3 thoughts on “Dodgy statistics – it’s all the Department for Education has

  1. Forgot to say – excellent piece!!

    I hope this isn’t the end of the matter though. As welcome as the UKSA’s intervention there are serious questions to be asked. We were told that the consultation was meant to open up a discussion yet now it is clear that the Dept is happy to issue (deliberately I’m sure) highly misleading statistics in order to get the result the government wants. I understand the Civil Service has to implement govt policy – I don’t think it is obliged to act as a propaganda arm.

    On the plus side, this and the ludicrous DNA tweet from Nick Gibb do seem to indicate that things perhaps not going well. I doubt they would be resorting to these desperate tactics if the consultation was not going against them.

    • Thanks Helen. We’ve updated the blog to reference the UKSA letter. At least one part of the civil service is trying to keep the rest honest.

      We agree with you that it seems wrong that the civil service is using social media to spread propaganda about government policy but it’s probably not a new thing. I’m not sure that this particular foray into social media will have been considered a success for the civil service.

      Perhaps you’re right about the direction that the consultation has been going in but its too soon to count our chickens.

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