School funding 'exaggerated' by ministers, says watchdog

Sean Coughlan
Education correspondent
@seanjcoughlanon Twitter

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The dispute over funding figures followed a protest by head teachers

School funding claims made by the Department for Education used "misrepresented" and "exaggerated" figures, says the UK's statistics watchdog.

The UK Statistics Authority, in a letter to Education Secretary Damian Hinds on Monday, says it had "serious concerns" about the department's "presentation and use of statistics".

The DFE was urged to improve how it presented information, to ensure that it "does not mislead".

"For a department that is in charge of the nation's numerical skills, this is getting embarrassing," said Sir David Spiegelhalter, president of the Royal Statistical Society.

"Ministers need to get a grip," said Sir David.

The statistics watchdog launched an investigation into education ministers' claims for high levels of school funding by international standards - when it emerged from BBC reports that spending figures included other non-school and non-government spending.

The statistics watchdog says the claim - which was found to include the money spent by university students on tuition fees and parents on private school fees - was likely to have been misunderstood by the public as referring to spending on schools.

International rankings

It warns that another figure on school spending in England did not show the evidence clearly enough on per pupil funding and changes in education budgets.

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Image caption,
The fees paid by students had been included in spending claims

The reprimand also accuses ministers of making incorrect claims about improvements in international tests.

The dispute over school funding followed a protest by head teachers in Westminster.

Their claims to face budget shortages were rejected by ministers, who said the UK was the third biggest spender on education in the world.

The context of how this figure was used - which was not really about the state funding of schools - was likely to give the public a more "favourable" impression than it merited, says the watchdog.

Mr Hinds said he would reply in due course with a more detailed response to the letter from Sir David Norgrove, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority.

But he said there were other international comparisons showing a high level of school spending.

The education secretary said that he had publicly recognised that "schools are facing cost pressures", but that funding would rise to £43.5bn by 2019-20.

Mr Hinds said his department was keen to work closely with the UK Statistics Authority to ensure that all its statistics were "factually accurate and used in the right context".

'Smoke and mirrors'

But the statistics watchdog told the department that the examples of the misuse of statistics "do not help to promote trust and confidence in official data, and indeed risk undermining them".

If the DFE fails to improve the quality of the information, the watchdog says, the department could lose its right to produce officially-recognised national statistics.

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Image caption,
Schools say their budgets have not kept pace with rising costs

Jules White, the Sussex head teacher who has organised protests over school funding shortages, said school leaders were "dismayed and angered" by the DFE's lack of an apology for a "very heavy reprimand".

"There is not even a hint of an apology or even an acknowledgement of wrongdoing," said Mr White.

"It is inconceivable that head teachers would not apologise if they were censured in such a way. "

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner described the criticism as a "humiliating rebuke" for ministers.

"They need to come clean and stop deceiving the public in a desperate attempt to cover up their shocking record," she said.

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