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. Continue reading School exam statistics – state secrets?

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Mrs May’s record on immigration

The rise of migration to the UK has been one of the extraordinary stories of the last 20 or so years. A majority of Britons want migration to be lower and think (by six to one) that the Government’s policy towards it as been unsatisfactory. High migration was surely one of the main reasons why the referendum happened and why the “leave” camp won. Perhaps curiously, Mrs May, who has been Home Secretary for six years, is the odds-on favourite to be the next Prime Minister, despite having overseen a migration failure. She did not get to grips with the mismanagement of e-borders, promoted the conceptually ridiculous net immigration target, signed up to the “tens of thousands” manifesto pledge, and then missed it by a factor of around ten. Under her watch, there has been net immigration of 1.8m and gross immigration of nearly 3m despite a myriad of mini-adjustments to migration rules. Conservative party members who are concerned about migration will want to see a clear commitment from Mrs May to end free movement in Europe and introduce a new immigration system and work permits.  Continue reading Mrs May’s record on immigration

£350m a week – how we got in this mess

UK Statistics Authority issued a statement today saying that it was “disappointed” in the way the £350m figure (of the cost of the UK’s EU membership) is being used and that it “undermines trust in official statistics”. I am sure that that much is true but it is also true that had UKSA presented the numbers “better” in the first place, the Leave campaign might never have used it in the way it has. UKSA could also have moved more quickly to clear up the ambiguity. Instead it left this statement to the 11th hour and risks making itself look political. A lesson should be learnt by all who feel that such numbers are important to democracy, accountability and good policy making. The reputation of numbers has taken a hit in this debate and every effort should be made to make sure they are presented properly in the future.

Continue reading £350m a week – how we got in this mess

Economists at the ONS

Pretty much everyone thinks it’s a good idea to have more economists (code for analytical capability) at the ONS but opinion divides when there’s discussion as to what they should be doing. There is a need to have people who can acquire and probe exiting data assets to make them sweat in the spirit of the Bean Review. In contrast, there is no need for the ONS to have any more descriptive writing and (sometimes dumbed-down) publications that serve some unspecified need. That would be a wasted opportunity. There is a risk that the hiring of large numbers of economists in a hurry, mostly in their early careers, as opposed to curious souls with experience, will lead the ONS down the wrong path. Meanwhile economists outside government need to start making the case for better statistics.  Continue reading Economists at the ONS

Trade statistics – are they good enough?

Trade is at the centre of the EU referendum debate and yet there is a question mark over the accuracy of the numbers. It’s widely reported that 44% of the UK’s exports go to the EU. The true figure is almost certainly a few percentage points lower and the figures for bilateral flows between some countries are said to be “seriously misleading”. This note asks how wrong an official statistic has to be before the UK Statistics Authority ceases to call it a National Statistic? The ONS has a consultation out on trade figures closing this week and the next and final set of monthly UK trade figures before the EU referendum are due on 9 JuneContinue reading Trade statistics – are they good enough?

ONS web site – urrgghh

A new ONS website was launched in February. I was delighted that its predecessor (launched in 2011, which brought many apologies from the ONS and was the subject of ridicule, as in this article by Tim Harford) was dispatched in its entirety and I welcomed the new one. It looked much nicer. Sadly, a couple of months on after increasing frustration, I now have to record that, in my humble opinion, it’s different but no better than its predecessor. This site, unlike its predecessor, is redeemable but it needs work on it, and now.

Continue reading ONS web site – urrgghh

44% of exports – data please!

I tried to find the most quoted figure used in the EU referendum debate. I am talking about the “44% of UK exports of goods and services are to the EU”. As a number on its own means little, a country breakdown or data for a few years would also be nice, I mused. I failed to find this on the ONS website and now offer a prize to the first person who can send me the data with source tables.  Continue reading 44% of exports – data please!

Land Registry – data not for sale?

Yesterday I wrote about the launch of the new ONS house prices series. One huge risk was the announcement a week ago of the impending sale of the Land Registry, on whose data the new index would be based. The ONS refused to comment on this at their presentation (and the Land Registry representative was silent) fuelling concerns of those present. It seems, however, that all is not lost. The consultation document about the sale sets out to guard the data. Even so, those who lived through the loss of the PAF address register as part of the sale of Royal Mail will not be convinced that a deal can be struck until it is agreed. It seems that a purchaser is required to sign an open ended deal that would allow government to be in control of the data and set the rules about what is to be collected and how it is to be disseminated. Really? The Chancellor needs his money and a deal needs to be done ………. who has the best hand?

Continue reading Land Registry – data not for sale?

House price statistics flop

Today’s pre-launch of the new house price index from ONS was a disaster. The proposals lacked ambition and the new statistics (based on Land Registry prices) could well disappear next year when the Land Registry is sold. “We’re not going to speculate” about that, said the ONS, who didn’t know who would own the statistics.

Continue reading House price statistics flop

UKSA Board – What next?

The Bean Review has been published and, it seems, has been universally acclaimed as a thorough report with widespread support for its recommendations. It is now official: the 2007 statistics legislation has failed to deliver. Yet, Bean was published over two weeks ago and still we have little idea of what will change as a result. This blog explores the options.

Continue reading UKSA Board – What next?