Lies, damn lies and statistics

Lies, damn lies & statistics - Mark Twain

It seems that the Department for Education hasn’t learnt its lesson, having been ticked off last week by the UK Statistics Authority over a tweet with misleading statistics, they’ve been tweeting again this week and the claims made are just as misleading. Whoever is in charge of their twitter account clearly has no shame.

Over the last couple of days there have been two tweets that we would class as wilfully misleading…

DfE Attainment gap tweet dfepreferencestweet

Attainment Gap

Let’s tackle the attainment gap tweet first. This refers to the gap in attainment between pupils from low income and those from high income households. In the first instance, we need to consider the fact that grammar schools right across the country have far fewer low income household pupils then their neighbouring non-selective schools so the grammar schools aren’t competing on a level playing field here. In fact only 1.7% of Maidenhead’s nearest grammar school, Sir William Borlase, are eligible for Free School Meals – that’s just 18 children in a school population of 1053.

Secondly, let’s consider what they are saying here. They’re saying that, if we only look at the narrow group of highly able children that get into a grammar school and then consider the tiny group within that already small group, then we can see that the attainment gap is almost eliminated. That’s brilliant, isn’t?

But hang on, the Department for Education has form for ignoring those children that don’t get into grammar schools as we saw last week and that’s exactly what they’re doing here too. What about all of those children in Secondary Moderns that didn’t get into the grammar school. Our nearest Local Authority with a selective school system, Buckinghamshire, has one of the worst attainment gaps in the country (41% against a national gap of 26% in 2014/15) and the gaps in other areas that have selection are equally appalling.

The attainment gap has, rightly, become a serious issue right across the country and most schools are working hard to bring it down but, if selection comes back then we can expect the situation in Buckinghamshire and the other selective areas to spread nationwide. Far from tackling the attainment gap and the poor social mobility that stems from it, selection will seriously worsen the situation.


The statistic referred to in the popularity tweet comes from an October 2016 DfE report called “School preferences: Analysis of secondary school-level applications and offers data by school type, England, 2016”. The report compares school preference data gathered from the various secondary school place application processes from across the country’s local authorities. The report makes a poor attempt at being even handed with the data by comparing only schools rated Outstanding with grammar schools on the basis that grammar schools are likely to be mostly Outstanding…but that’s not the comparison that they use for the statistic above. The “selective schools are almost 50% more popular” claim comes from comparing selective schools with all schools regardless of their current Ofsted rating.

Even so, if we just consider the attempted “fair” comparison, we really need to consider what might be motivating all those first preferences for selective schools. Take the situation in Buckinghamshire again, around half of the schools there are rated Requires Improvement so, if your choices as a parent are an Outstanding grammar school or a very poor Secondary Modern then isn’t it very likely that you would feel compelled to try as hard as you can to get your child into the grammar school?

Conversely, if you live near an Outstanding Comprehensive school then there is likely to be much less motivation to push your child through endless hours of tutoring to get them through the 11+ exam so that they can attend a Grammar school. You can send your child to the local Comprehensive secure in the knowledge that their education will be just as good as anything they are likely to get at a Grammar school.

Schools that really work for everyone

So, if the government really wishes to provide “more good schools” and “schools that work for everyone”, surely the only solution is to work as hard as possible to make all of our existing schools Outstanding. Selection is not the answer.

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