PROPAGANDA DAYPosted: January 31, 2013
Trevor Fisher writes:
The annual examination statistics day at the end of each January has become Propaganda Day for the supporters of government policy. Statistics from the DfE are presented in ways that support the policies that the government backs, and the media increasingly report highly selective data as fact. Recently – last year in fact – there was a more robust response from its opponents and Henry Stewart got a very good article in the Observer.
Since then the critics have been marginalised, reports unfavourable to the government have had little notice taken of them and the government is more confident of advancing often extreme policies. Neither the Commons Librarian report nor Terry Wrigley’s extensive survey got any significant coverage because of a relentless and effective flood of misleading data. It never stops, but Propaganda Day is crucial. Thursday 24.01 was the day data was released to be reported the following day, and this was Propaganda Day. The media showed widespread acceptance of very dubious government data. Seven days after Propaganda Day we are still running to catch up.
As Henry Stewart has pointed out in an excellent Local Schools Network blog, the government achieved virtually total unanimity of supportive reporting. My focus here is on the the broadsheets, with the Telegraph, Independent, Times and most notably the Guardian reading from the same hymn sheet and setting the agenda for the broadcast media. The context is the scanty coverage they gave to the mildly critical Pearson/RSA report for its analysis of Academies. This allowed very one sided reporting on Propaganda Day.
It is particularly worrying that the Guardian chose to headline that academisation would be boosted by alleged failures to achieve government targets although it noted targets had been increased arbitrarily. Selective data was presented to back government policy and the report was headed “GCSE results set to accelerate drive to turn schools into academies”. A more accurate headline would be “Government Moves Goalposts to Fail Schools and Take them Over”. However the first four paragraphs were straight from the DfE headline press release, and the willingness to take this as gospel indicates that even a liberal paper has great difficulty in critiquing the government. More pro-government papers are worse.
TYPES OF MISLEADING REPORTING.
Misleading reporting now comes in two forms, puff pieces on individual school successes, and highly tendentious use of exam stats to show in particular that on the one key claim for Academies, 16 plus exam results, they achieve massive success, so the magic wand is working.
Puff pieces were run in the Times, and Independent on 25th January
The Times reported that the Thomas Telford School had achieved top billing for the 13th year in a row, without reporting any of the criticisms of the school beyond reporting mildly that it operates a form of selection, though it is always called a comprehensive. The head, Sir Kevin Satchwell, gained a knighthood for his record. Critiques of its performance have made no impact at all. The Independent had an even more tendentious report of a super head who had turned the 16 plus results around in two years. Neither report used the words “GCSE or equivalents”, and the failure to flag up the issue of equivalents meant readers would believe GCSEs were the marker. It is worrying that the headline of the DfE press release did not use the crucial phrase “and equivalents”, failing to indicate that real GCSEs may not be the qualifications used.
However writers cannot shield behind the DfE. While the headline press release omitted the key phrase, the accompanying statistical statement, also issued on 24.01, GCSE & EQUIVALENT RESULTS IN ENGLAND 2011-12 (Ref SFR02/2012) did use the key phrase in its title, and fleshed it out in the opening paragraph in the phrase “GCSE exams and other regulated qualifications 2011-12”, which experts know include the Vocational Equivalents condemned by the Wolf report. Reporters showed no awareness of the significance of Vocational Equivalents.
Toby Young quoted the DFE as saying “sponsored academies are improving their GCSE results five times faster than other schools”. This statement was also quoted by the Guardian, and not questioned. Young claimed this was “a vindication of Gove’s policy of encouraging academy chains to take over struggling schools”. As an indication that the originators of the policy, Blair and Adonis, are now being written out of the picture, the statement is politically significant, but the real significance is educational, since Young did not substantiate the claim made by the DfE, or recognise that the claim is flawed as it is not comparing like with like.
No report indicated this critical flaw in the data. The most alarming in this respect was the Guardian, managing to quote Chris Keates of NAS/UWT saying the data was flawed, but making no attempt to explain why. The report, written by Peter Walker, stated that 195 schools failed in 2012 to meet the 5 good GCSEs target, but while noting the number had been 251 in 2011 went on to say “the 195 schools… can be targeted for takeover by academy chains (other forms of sponsorship seems to have vanished), a process the DfE says brings improved results, a massively questionable claim. Walker did not question it.
Walkers’ next sentence in fact stated “the argument received some backing (as)… the proportion of students reaching the 5 good GCSEs standard rose by 3.1% in sponsored academies as against a national rise for state schools of 0.6%”. Not only was there no mention of equivalents – Walker simply quoted the headline press release – this statement showed a stunning inability to understand that there is not a common base line. When compared with maintained schools that obtained similar results in the past, the difference between academies and other schools vanishes completely.
This kind of deception by the DfE is now an annual ritual. It has been taken apart by critics (for this year see http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/01/2012-gcse-data-non-academies-do-as-well-as-academies/) but continues to dominate press coverage of results.
PREPARING FOR PROPAGANDA DAY
There is no point in complaining about the articles or the DfE press material and tables on which the press rely. There is no sign the broadsheet press used the detailed data in SFR02/2012, though Henry Stewart indicates Chris Cook in the Financial Times did have a more sophisticated approach. The main problems are that the DfE is adopting a political stance in selecting the information to present to the public, and that the journalists do not understand the statistical rules. Henry Stewart asks why journalists do not check. They need to be told what to check.
Complaints are being made to the BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, Times and Independent. This is admirable but too late. We need a body which can brief journalists well in advance. There will be 4 Propaganda Days in 2013 – the usual A Level, GCSE and January days, and the PISA stats which are due to be published this year. It is now vital to plan ahead and counter the DfE at their very dubious game. We need a full time body on examination results.