During last nights Question Time from Wrexham, blogger Kate Maltby speaking early on in the programme but after several exchanges between some of the MPs on the panel, pointed out that the rest of the programme was bound to be dominated by the MPs arguing about statistics. This was not entirely true as far as the programme was concerned but it is a very accurate critique of much of the public political discourse in this country. My own reflection on this is that we need MPs to focus on policy, not on data but clearly the two are intertwined to a large extent. Yesterday was certainly a day for statistics as the league tables for Schools were published with the new way of counting the statistics and inevitably a great deal of unnecessary criticism of Schools and students as the Government seemed to be claiming that they had improved standards simply because they had changed the way the data is gathered.
It is clear that standards are not changed just because data is collected differently. The closest that one could get to this is if Schools, anticipating the new way of gathering data changed their behaviour and as a consequence standards might be affected. However the real problem with this mess, one that previous Governments are familiar with, is that because new ways of collecting data have been introduced and the old ways have been removed, there is no way for anyone to claim or deny that anything has changed from year to year. Nicky Morgan bravely suggested that it was still possible to compare Schools with one another and that this was the primary use of league tables. I personally disagree with the publication of data that focuses on what one years cohort can achieve in exam results in league tables. It is clear that Schools that do well in one year can just as easily do badly in the next, there are simply too many variables within a School for parents to be seduced into thinking they can work out the best School to send their child to on the strength of one set of statistics. In that respect these parents are reduced to the state of the MPs on last night Question time.
If we are to continue to publish league tables, as I suspect we are, they need to follow a set of standards that our MPs really should be interested in. All Governments change the way in which statistics are measured from time to time, and there is always a suspicion that doing so leads to their advantage or strengthens their policy position. I have no idea if these suspicions are well founded in this case, technically none of us do. What we need is a decision by our Parliament that in the future, unless doing so would be disproportionately expensive, that when any Government chooses to count things in a different way, that the old way of counting will be run in parallel for at least 12 months and potentially 2 years. That way you and I can judge if there has been a rise in standards or if the Government are simply telling us lies. Indeed if there were statistics available for both ways of counting, the lies might simply stop being told!