The official statistics regulator has accused ministers of threatening to undermine trust over “concerning” published figures – including “exaggerating” the level of school funding.
Sir David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), tackled the Department for Education (DfE) over its record of potentially “misleading” numbers.
He has written to the department four times in the last 12 months, a letter published on Monday revealed, but “regretted” that it “does not yet appear to have resolved issues with its use of statistics”.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds replied that the department was “looking into the precise issues that you raise”.
The UKSA’s first complaint was with a claim made by school standards minister Nick Gibb, who said England had “leapfrogged” up the rankings – from 19th to 8th among a group of 50 countries.
The regulator said that was incorrect – and figures published last year show the increase was from 10th in 2011 to 8th in 2016.
A post from the DfE’s Twitter account also “exaggerated” school funding figures by “truncating” one of the axes.
A blog about school funding linked to in the tweet also included a section on international comparisons, highlighting “a wide range of education expenditure unrelated to publicly funded schools”.
“The result was to give a more favourable picture,” Sir David complained.
He also highlighted a point by Labour’s shadow education secretary, who said the DfE used a figure that appeared to show a large jump in the number of children in Ofsted-judged “high performing” schools.
While accurate, the figure did not give “the full picture” and should have included context, Sir David said.
He pointed to increasing pupil numbers and some inspection results being “now long in the past”.
Sir David wrote: “I am sure you share my concerns that instances such as these do not help to promote trust and confidence in official data, and indeed risk undermining them.”
In response, Mr Hinds said he was keen to “work closely” with the UKSA to ensure statistics were “factually accurate and used in the right context”.
“We are looking into the precise issues that you raise, and the permanent secretary will write to the UKSA shortly with a more detailed response,” he wrote.
“Naturally we want to ensure we always present those factually accurate statements, and all others, in line with your code of practice for statistics and I look forward to working with your team further on that.
“More widely, in the interests of making sure the public debate is well informed, I hope that others who produce and use statistics which become regularly cited will also aspire to the highest standards of data integrity, and that the UKSA can play a role in challenging where data could easily be open to misinterpretation.
“Thank you once again and please be assured of my, and my department’s, continued commitment to working with you on the integrity of statistics and informing the public debate.”