Lies, damned lies, and spin


The Department for Education (DfE) issued a press report this
week entitled “England's
15-year-olds' reading is more than a year behind the best
”. The conclusions
were taken from analysis of data from the PISA
2009 study
, an OECD survey of 15-year-olds in the principal industrialised

The DfE report paints a dire picture: “GCSE pupils' reading
is more than a year behind the standard of their peers in Shanghai, Korea and
Finland….Fifteen-year-olds in England are also at least six months behind those
in Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia, according to
the Department for Education's (DfE) analysis of the OECD's 2009 Programme for
International Student Assessment (PISA) study.” The report goes on to talk of England
slipping behind other nations in reading.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb is quoted as saying: “The gulf
between our 15-year-olds' reading abilities and those from other countries is
stark – a gap that starts to open in the very first few years of a child's education.”

I started to smell a rat when I looked at a chart in the
report, entitled “Attainment gap between England
and the countries performing
significantly better than
(my emphasis). This seemed an odd kind of chart to provide if one wanted to
evaluate how England
is doing compared to other countries. So I turned to the report
provided by the people who did the survey

Here are some salient points taken verbatim from their
summary on reading:

  • Twelve countries had mean scores for
    reading which were significantly higher than that of England. In 14 countries the
    difference in mean scores from that in England was not statistically
    significant. Thirty-eight countries had mean scores that were
    significantly lower than England.

  • The mean score for reading in England
    was slightly above the OECD average but this difference was not
    statistically significant.

  • England’s performance in 2009 does not differ
    greatly from that in the last PISA
    survey in 2006.

There is, of course, no problem with aiming high and wanting
our children to be among the top achievers in the world. But that’s no excuse
for the DfE's mendacious manipulation of information.


Bradshaw, J., Ager, R., Burge, B. and Wheater, R. (2010). PISA 2009: Achievement of 15-Year-Olds in England. Slough: NFER.