Lies, damned lies and statistics: a Minister’s masterclass

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The jury is still out on whether this famous phrase was first coined by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, but no-one’s in any doubt that politicians ever since have used it to their advantage. Not, I hasten to add, to tell lies deliberately, but to use statistics in such a way as to tell the truth while misleading the listener at the same time. And Schools’ Minister Nick Gibb is a master of the art.

Most recently Mr Gibb enraged school leaders by persistently claiming that more money is being spent on schools than ever before. This is hardly surprising: if school funding simply matched inflation it would be constantly on the rise so you would expect today’s expenditure to be higher than yesterday’s. As we have seen, such claims fail to match the experiences of headteachers who have wrestled with rising costs, many of them – like raised pension contributions – hidden from the general view.

Forced to expand on his statement, Mr Gibb went on to trumpet the UK’s expenditure on education, stating on radio 4’s Today  programme that “We are spending record amounts on our school funding. We are the third highest spender on education in the OECD,” parroting the statistics that had been tweeted in graphical form by his department since the beginning of the week.

Nick Gibb’s carefully constructed comment encourages the listener to conclude that the UK is the third highest school spender in the world… but that’s not what he said. Record amounts are being spent on school funding – true. Third highest spender on education – also true. But that second figure includes fees paid to independent schools as well as university tuition fees, resulting in well-deserved cries of “foul!”

The Schools’ Minister is not new to sneaky uses of statistics; in fact he’s something of an expert, as the following example shows.

Nick Gibb’s Masterclass

Earlier this year our interest was sparked by the following statement from the DfE:

School Standards Minister Nick Gibb said: “The attainment gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their peers has narrowed by 10 per cent since 2011.”

This would suggest the Pupil Premium funding has had a powerful impact. But do the figures stack up?

We set out to investigate this claim, using the figures published by the DfE. The graph below shows the attainment gap between disadvantaged children (as measured by Pupil Premium) and their peers – at first sight it doesn’t seem to get much smaller at all.

NGibb stats

Most people are likely to think that not only has the size of the gap remained constant, but the average hasn’t changed a lot either. And they’d be right: statistical tests show that there is no significant difference between performance in 2017 and 2011.

So what of Mr Gibb’s 10%: lies or damned lies? Neither, just wily statistics – and a hefty dose of rounding up. Let’s look at the numbers:

2011 attainment gap = 28.8%

2017 attainment gap = 26.9%

2017-2011 difference = 1.9 percentage points

So that small difference is 6.6% of the original gap – which you could possibly round up to 10% if you need all your numbers to end in a zero.

But who in their right minds takes a percentage of a percentage? Anyone listening to the “narrowed by 10%” comment could be forgiven for thinking that this means a gap of 29% reducing to 19%. Not what the Honourable Member actually said, but convenient for him if you interpret the numbers in that way: a numerical sleight of hand.

This is not to decry the hard work that schools have put into raising standards: you can see from the graph that attainment is improving for both groups of students. But it underlines the need to dig into the proclamations of ministers rather than taking them at face value. While they continue to use numbers in this way school leaders will increasingly need to use their Pupil Premium funding to prop up their reducing real-term budgets – and where will that leave Nick Gibb’s attainment gap in 2019? Only time will tell, but you can be 100% sure that the responsibility for any decline in standards won’t be laid at the Minister’s door.

Chris Rolph and Ella Jakeway

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