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FactCheck: how Gove failed his exams

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 12 December 2007

Shadow children's secretary Michael Gove falls down the FactCheck league table for some questionable education claims.

The claim

"Last week we discovered that we had fallen from 4th to 14th in the international league tables for science; 7th to 17th for reading, and 8th to 24th for maths.

How does the secretary of state explain how we were in the top 10 for all these subjects when the children sitting the tests had the majority of their education under a Conservative government, but had fallen down the rankings, relegated to the second division, when those sitting the tests had all their education under a Labour government."
Michael Gove, shadow children's secretary, House of Commons,11 December 2007

The background

Children's secretary Ed Balls spoke to the Commons on Tuesday to unveil his new education policy. Was it a bold new initiative to improve the childhood of a generation, or just an attempt to paper over the cracks of a crumbling education policy?

Well, his shadow Michael Gove would probably have you believe the latter.

Labour has been receiving some poor marks on education recently, and Gove was quick to remind him of some of them in the government's latest debate.

Is Britain really sliding down the rankings of world educational achievement, as he says? And does that mean that standards are falling? Or is there some statistical quirk happening here?

The analysis

The answer to the first question is basically yes, we are sliding down the rankings, but no, that does not mean that standards are falling. And given that this is FactCheck, there is of course a statistical quirk at work.

Gove's numbers come from an OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report called the Programme for International Student Assessment. The first set of - positive - rankings quoted by Gove come from 2000, the bad set come from 2006.

There are a number of reasons why the UK fell so far down the charts.

Given that this is FactCheck, there is of course a statistical quirk at work.

A large number of high-performing small countries have been included in the second chart, but not the first - they include Chinese-Taipei (aka Taiwan), Hong Kong, Lichtenstein, Estonia, Slovenia and Macau.

They've joined the list above the UK - so our league position is pushed down, not because we're doing relatively worse, but because the rankings now include people who are - and have always been - better than us. That accounts for quite a few places, but not all of them.

There are also changes in the way schools participate in the study which have altered the results.

In 2000 too few schools took part in the survey, and in 2003, too few students took part - result, the OECD says, of 'survey fatigue'. Result: UK data from before 2006 aren't reliable, and can't be accurately compared.

A spokesman for the OECD said that the league tables for different years were never designed to be compared with each other, and the study shows no evidence that UK education has slipped as badly as Michael Gove says.

The verdict

Michael Gove quotes the numbers correctly - but anyone who can read the Daily Telegraph could do the same.

However, crude comparisons between different years are always difficult because there are often changes in methodology, which mean that the numbers don't actually tell you what you think they mean.

Comparing positions in a league table are particularly misleading if there are a different number of countries in one than the other.

These points might be minor quibbles if the general drift of the survey was in line with the point that Michael Gove was trying to make. But the fact is that the researchers from the OECD say that the results do not show any evidence of a real decline in standards.

We take Gove's rating up an extra notch because this issue has been so widely explored in the press long before Gove gave his speech - in the Guardian, on Radio 4 and elsewhere.

So a man of Gove's legendary intelligence really has no excuse for trotting out these obviously misleading stats one more time.

FactCheck rating: 4.5

How ratings work

Every time a FactCheck article is published we'll give it a rating from zero to five.

The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largely checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.

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