School exam statistics – state secrets?

This is a story about how I tried – and failed – to get some data about top performing GCSE students and girls doing STEM-related A levels. The story highlights weaknesses in the Department for Education but also in government statistics and their regulation systems more widely. The public deserves better. A report from the UK Statistics Authority on this quest was published today.

Exam success is key for a school pupil that wants to go to a leading university, on their way to a top job. As the AS levels will soon be a thing of the past, GCSEs are vital in that journey. Yet information about what sort of pupils from which type of schools in different parts of the country get the all-important top grade GCSEs (or study combinations of STEM-related A levels) is largely a mystery as the government denies access to the full set of school-level exam results.

The problem is mainly around iGCSEs. As most are not “recognised” by the Department for Education, they don’t count them. Yet, pupils take the exams and they are accepted by universities when offering places. Accordingly official figures do not show us which schools are most successful in year 11 exams, and best at getting their students to top universities. The reluctance of DfE generally to release the data it holds (and be clear about what the data show) also means that we know little about other hot topics, for example, which schools are getting more girls doing STEM subjects at A level. To have so little information about such important issues is shocking.

The Department’s focus is on holding state-funded schools to account. There would seem to be little interest in broader issues such as understanding the experiences of successive cohorts of children or measuring and improving equality of opportunity. Even if a department is driven by its targets, there is no excuse not to release other data for the public good – for teachers, governors, parents and others. The main reason underlying the DfE decision not to publish all the data they hold must be to stifle debate. In their words to me “Releasing this data including unregulated qualifications would risk undermining the effective use of published performance tables data.” The figures, if published, might well show too starkly the relative excellence of the independent school system and the lack of girls doing STEM.

It’s taken over a year for me not to get the data! Most people would have given up the chase earlier. The Department’s delaying tactics and excuses are not consistent with the spirit of high quality public service, open data or civil service codes. The UK Statistics Authority and the Information Commissioners Office were unable (or unwilling) to help me prise open the DfE data. Open government and good quality customer service are not a priority in this corner of the statistics service. I look forward to DfE delivering on the few commitments it has given to improve its service.

Full protection of personal data is vital but this is a story about how access is denied to non-personalised aggregated data or statistics. The example here relates to the Department for Education but many elements of it apply to other public sector bodies. The figures are collected and processed at considerable public expense and held by government. Other government departments have access to this data and policy is formed on the basis of them. Some pressure groups and academics get access to them and make headlines. But if you are a curious individual, school governor, benefactor, teacher, community group or anyone else who cannot meet strict rules, you will not be allowed to see the data. The public cannot check the workings of those who set the news agenda and influence policy. Parents of young children cannot get the full data about schools.

Hopefully this story will bring about some change in the way government treats existing and potential data users. Changes to the statistics code of practice would be a good start – and a consultation is underway. It is after all, public that in effect pays for the data that is collected about them. The users (tax payers) ought to be able to see non-disclosive data about our society that is held by government.

I will be publishing a longer report on this issue in the next day or so.


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