Setting an Example: the DfE and Statistics

The Department for Education has been criticised for its use of statistics in public debate. At the time of publication, the UK government department is also being investigated by the UK Statistics Authority.

This article will consider the two claims in contention.

In short

Total, not government, spending: The claim the UK is ‘3rd in the OECD’ is based on total spending on all forms of education, not just school government spending.When looking at public spending of primary and secondary education, the UK ranks joint 7th.

‘1.9m more children in good schools’: This claim does not account for population growth, school choice by rating, or inspection changes.

Set an example: The Department for Education should demonstrate trustworthiness in its use of statistics.

‘3rd in the OECD’

Nick Gibb MP (Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton), the Minister of State for School Standards, said on the BBC Radio Four’s Today programme:

We are spending record amounts on our school funding. We are the third highest spender on education in the OECD.

This claim has been repeated elsewhere, and appears to be based on the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2018 report, which uses data from 2015:

The United Kingdom is ranked third in the OECD for total expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP, below Norway and New Zealand.

However, this is total expenditure: money spent by public, private and international sources. It includes spending by “governments, enterprises, and individual students and their families”. This figure will contain university tuition fees paid through income-contingent loans, and private school fees.

Using the OECD website, we can answer the question: what is the United Kingdom’s rank by public expenditure on (primary to tertiary) education?

This is primary to tertiary education spending by public bodies, in 2015, for OECD countries. (Source: OECD)


The minister’s statement on BBC radio is likely to be misleading in two aspects.

“We” refers to the government in his first sentence, but to total spending from all sources in the second. Looking only at public spending gives a drastically different view: the UK ranks fourteenth as a percentage of GDP.

A Department for Education spokesperson claimed the UK is ranked top of the G7 countries for public spending on primary and secondary education as a percentage of GDP.

This is accurate (as the closest category is ‘primary to post-secondary non-tertiary’), based on data from 2015. Among OECD countries, the UK is ranked joint seventh with New Zealand.

Public spending on non-tertiary education in the UK was 3.8% of GDP — highest of the G7. (Source: OECD)

‘1.9m more children taught in good schools’

According to Schools Week, Angela Rayner MP (Labour, Ashton-under-Lyne), the Shadow Education Secretary, has written to the UK Statistics Authority regarding the repeated claim that there are ‘1.9m more children being taught in good or outstanding schools since 2010’. This correspondence is available on the UK Statistics Authority’s website.

This claim has been principally made by Damien Hinds MP (Conservative, East Hampshire), the Education Secretary, but other parliamentarians have also used this line.

The “killer statistic” has been investigated by Jon Andrews of the Education Policy Institute.

It does not account for school population growth. There were 0.56m more pupils in state-funded schools in England in 2017 than in 2010.

The population in state-funded schools has been rising. (Graph: EPI)

There has been an increase (of 0.58m) in pupils attending schools that are classed as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, when looking at state schools open between 2010 and 2017.

The claim also reflects changes in the school inspections programme: ‘outstanding’ schools are only inspected if there has been a marked decline in results or safeguarding issues arise.

Additionally, the replacement of the ‘satisfactory’ grade with ‘requires improvement’ in 2012 may have caused an increase in primary schools attaining the ‘good’ grade.

The ‘1.9m more children’ statistic used by the Department for Education has substantial limitations, and partially reflects school population growth, school choice based on ratings, and inspection programme changes.

Government departments must be trustworthy in their use of statistics. It is time for the Department for Education to set an example.



This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Anthony B. Masters

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.