Statistical Information – its use and abuse?

‘Politicians use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp-post, for support rather than illumination.’
‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics.’
In order to begin examining some of the problems confronting technical and vocational education and training in Britain a number of key issues need to be addressed. One critical need is to develop a more effective Labour Market Intelligence system (ILM) which I have already written about on this website. Another equally important matter is to have greater confidence in handling data, information and statistical material about education and training. The recent reports by the Royal Society (1) have yet again highlighted the difficulties in obtaining accurate information about education especially about science and mathematics teachers in schools and colleges. This concern is not new. Many reports over a number of decades have identified major weakness in the way the data is collected, collated and disseminated by government and its departments. In spite of this, findings from such reports and reviews and their recommendations little positive action and improvement has occurred. The only aspect that has changed is that successive governments have increased, often repeatedly, their requests for data and information from education and training providers. As a result institutions now have to spend a disproportionate amount of their resources recording, collecting, collating and dispatching data and information to various government and their agencies overseeing education and training. Practically no area of activity in institutions escapes this scrutiny. It seems that this obsession with data, information and the writing of strategic plans is reminiscent of an Edgar Allan Poe short story where everyone gets buried alive under immense piles of paperwork and bureaucracy. Or perhaps a novel by Kafka with a large, dark and menacing bureaucracy influencing and perturbing all that the institutions are trying to achieve? So surely fundamental questions need to be asked especially at this time of financial cuts and the austerity measures that are being introduced and could include the following:
·          What is the purpose of of all these requests?
·         How is the data ultimately used and how soon?
·         What are the motives behind the way data is finally packaged and disseminated, especially in the public domain?
·         Are the current practices of the data collection and its subsequent packaging meant to be of use to the institutions themselves or is there a wider political agenda?
·         Does the data possess reliability, validity and probity?
Institutions fully accept their responsibilities and accountabilities to sponsoring bodies and ultimately the tax payer and the need to operate with as great a level of efficiency, effectiveness and economy as is possible. However there is a feeling that the current situation of data collection has assumed questionable proportions. Also it challenges whether the data and information collected is of real value to the institution providing it. The formative use of statistical data does provide helpful feedback to institutions and allows them to improve services to their students, staff and other users. After all, the codes of practice from a number of the data collecting agencies stress the importance of the information being of direct use to the providing institution.
Institutions know that if they wait long enough they will receive glossy documents that clearly pander to the league-table fetishists and advocates of the free market. The continuing obsession with league tables, which are superficial and context free, allows politicians to criticise the institutions. Little regard is given to value addedness’ or ‘the distance travelled by the students’. Very often the league tables exclude valuable information about the adult learners this reflecting the funding priorities and the focus on the younger student. Also there has been up to now a very superficial treatment of achievements in vocational qualifications. One galling fact to institutions is the great difficulties in interpreting and validating the partial and superficial information that they receive back. Very often the somewhat superficial level of aggregation and resolution in the statistics makes it even more difficult to manage an institution and plan future provision effectively.
The use of the data and the value of strategic plans?
One interesting use, or is it abuse?, of the statistics is the way the funding agencies aggregate the projected student numbers from the providers’ strategic plans and then inform the government how the student numbers will increase or decrease in certain subject areas. However we all know that in the current volatile environment strategic plans have limited value and the use of those national projections can be very damaging to institutions that are trying to take difficult decisions about the long-term future of certain strategically important subjects that are experiencing shortages like engineering, manufacturing, mathematics and the physical sciences. Perhaps in the current climate strategic plans can be compared with works of fantasy! They make interesting reading but possess very little reality, validity and reliability.
The Royal Society Reports again identified the lack of accurate information about the teaching force in schools and colleges in terms of their qualifications, the amount of CPD undertaken etc. This is particularly concerning across the school, college and training provider sectors in the subjects mentioned above.
League tables must in future include value-added information even though it is a complex and difficult area, but which must not be dodged by the statistical agencies. The tables should strive to present the context under which an educational and training provider operates including the social and economic environment, Inner city and regions that have experienced high unemployment and massive declines in traditional manufacturing industries. The range, diversity and heterogeneous nature of providers must be recognised particularly if they are recruiting in shortage subjects like science, engineering and certain trades and crafts i.e. plumbing.
The two quotes at the beginning reinforce the question – what are the statistics supporting? Are they meant to support the institutions or the various political agendas? Sadly there was evidence in the 1990s and 2000s that some institutions were massaging their figures to present a distorted view of their performance to enhance their marketing activities.
The whole area of data collection has to be fundamentally reviewed and reformed because only then can a national strategy and funding methodology be formulated that tackles the problems confronting this country. Such a review must be free from manipulation and massaging by politicians for they own agendas. Traditionally we all know that politicians like to cherry pick statistics to benefit their own prejudices and policies. In order to improve the situation in regard to key subjects like engineering, manufacturing, mathematics, modern languages, physical sciences there must be a confidence in the data, information and the subsequent statistical analysis that is accurate, reliable, valid and possesses probity. Formative use of information can be an invaluable aid to institutions and most certainly for technical and vocational education and training especially when the coalition government is talking about how to rebalance the British economy and build back the manufacturing base of the country. The government must once and for all develop efficient and comprehensive management information systems (MIS) that will process the data and information from institutions in a quick, accurate and valid manner. In addition individual providers should operate their own systems cost effectively and complement the central systems. Only then will confidence be re-established and engendered in the whole system of data and information handling.
(1)   Royal Society’. ‘State of the Nation Reports.’ 4 parts. 2007 +. Information about the reports access
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