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FM: “We must have a debate based on facts” (although they may need to be corrected later)

June 15, 2016

what I want is, Facts. … Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. .. Stick to Facts, sir! (Thomas Gradgrind, Hard Times: Charles Dickens)

…I simply pointed out what the figures actually say…. I am simply setting out factually for the chamber what the figures actually say. I think that that is the appropriate thing to do…. the numbers from our most deprived communities are up 10 per cent—up 10 per cent for applications and up 10 per cent for entries. That is simply a fact, and it is a fact that is in these figures….instead of arguing over the facts—and we cannot argue over these facts, because they are what they are ... (FM at FMQs Thursday, 9 June 2016)

The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

The fact the FM was particularly keen to discuss on 9 June – she quoted the figure at three different points  – was that

when we look at the figures for people of all ages we see that the numbers from the most deprived areas who are both applying to university and being accepted are up in 2015 compared with 2014, in both cases by about 10 per cent.

This post (from the day of FMQs) explained why that 10% was not a real increase and the actual figure was likely to be much lower.

This number was taken from a new data release by UCAS. It was held up as more meaningful than the 7% fall between 2014 and 2015 in the number of 18 year olds entering university through UCAS from the most deprived areas, which had emerged  unexpectedly from the same set of figures. The FM described this figure as having “dropped slightly” and as “a slight decline”.

Jump forward to Tuesday 14 June and there is this (government inspired) written parliamentary answer:

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (Scottish National Party): To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the additional data published by the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) on 10 June 2016 clarifying that the scope of its undergraduate scheme for providers in Scotland increased in 2015 to include courses previously recruited through the postgraduate UCAS Teacher Training scheme and there has been variability in the recording of very late acceptances from cycle to cycle. (S5W-00737)

Shirley-Anne Somerville:

The Scottish Government welcomes the publication of this additional data by UCAS clarifying the scope of the previously published figures, including those referenced by the First Minister at First Minister’s Questions on 9 June 2016. We also welcome that the figures continue to show that, even accounting for the issues UCAS subsequently clarified, the number of people of all ages accepted through UCAS to Scottish universities from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland increased from 4,020 in 2014 to 4,075 in 2015, an increase of 1.4%. The increase since 2010 is 17.6%.

Note: the UCAS update increases the reported fall in 18 year olds placed applicants, to 7.5%.

It’s right that the Scottish Government moved quickly to correct the record, but it is odd to suggest that the additional information provided by UCAS on the Friday was new. The SG’s own press office was aware in January 2015 of the issue with the increase between 2014 and 2015, saying then:

Today’s UCAS publication suggests a 10 per cent rise in Scots-domiciled applications. However, much of the rise is due to the inclusion of teacher training courses at Scottish universities in the UCAS undergraduate scheme for the first time this year. The comparable year-on-year figure is a rise of one per cent as per the figures noted above.

UCAS had also highlighted the issues in its end of cycle report in December 2015:

In 2014, there were fewer late acceptances to Scotland recorded in the UCAS data for some Scottish providers, meaning that comparing acceptances with 2014 may not give an accurate measure of change. Also, a large set of teacher training courses at providers in Scotland were recruited through the UCAS Undergraduate scheme for the first time in 2015, having previously been recruited through UCAS Teacher Training. These two factors are estimated to account for around 3,800 of the 4,400 increase in acceptances to providers in Scotland in 2015 compared with 2014.

The Scottish Government’s press notice of 22 December 2015 welcoming the report  noted:

Record number of Scots were accepted to university – 34,775, an increase of over 900 (3 per cent) after taking account of changes to the coverage of UCAS data

In her contribution to FMQs, the FM said:

I have studied the figures in some detail, as people would expect me to have done

For the most senior member of the government, with all the extraordinary and unenviable responsibility that entails, people would surely expect that studying numbers in detail would include taking advice from people within the government machine who know how to read the numbers in question and can flag up any potential mis-reading. The press and therefore presumably also the government received advance copies of the latest UCAS report under embargo.

It has to be assumed from this case either that the system for briefing the First Minister before the most closely watched and widely reported event of the parliamentary week does not operate with the checks and balances that would have alerted the First Minister to the problem with her key “fact” in this case; or else that the collective institutional memory of the SG in this area is less than 6 months old, or resides in so few people that there’s very little to prevent such a large error making it all the way to the FM’s script.  Any of these options have implications well beyond this one issue.

 

On 9 June, the First Minister said,

I am not saying that the figures are wrong. I am simply setting out factually for the chamber what the figures actually say.

when asked to comment on the (now clarified)  7.5% single year fall in the number going straight to university at age 18 from the most deprived 20% areas in Scotland. That remains a bona fide, UCAS confirmed, surprising fact and as such it deserves some further attention.

 

Ironic footnote

In the same FMQ session, the FM was critical of the Labour Education spokesman for releasing set of figures over the weekened which wrongly suggested that the number of women taking science and computing at highers level had fallen. Here’s how the FM approached this, placing further rhetorical emphasis on the concept of “facts” and introducing a further one – “distortion”:

I think that the question is whether Iain Gray did that deliberately, or whether the Labour education spokesman did not know that highers were being reformed. Frankly, I am not sure which would be worse….

She added:

I hope that Labour and the Scottish National Party can be allies on the education agenda, but we must have a debate based on facts, not on distortions.

Let me underline what Labour did at the weekend. It compared the numbers of girls going into STEM subjects in 2007 with the figures for 2015. It took 2007 as the baseline, when young people sat only highers. It then went to 2015 and counted only the old highers; it did not include the new highers or the revised highers that are replacing the old highers. Labour then went to the media on the basis of that information and said that there was a fall in the number of girls studying those science subjects. That was flatly wrong; it was a distortion of the reality. Frankly, it was a disgrace.

If we are going to move forward and build consensus and alliances on improving education for our young people—as I am determined to do—and if Labour wants to be part of that, let us stop the distortion and do that on the basis of facts.

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