When Rhetoric and Reality Collide, Use Statistics

Posted on April 13, 2017


The DfE, and the government more widely, have got themselves into a bit of a pickle. The division between what they say they want to achieve and what they are actually doing has diverged so far that they are unable to reconcile the two: rhetoric and reality have boarded trains heading in two opposite directions. 

For the DfE this is manifesting itself in terms of the focus on increased selection that will somehow increase the educational attainment of all students, in spite of all of the evidence of academic selection running to the contrary. For the government more widely it’s the focus on raising the life chances of children from the newly baptised Ordinary Working Families (OWFs, not JAMs as the latter was perhaps too resonant of the reality than the rhetoric). 

The two came together yesterday in the DfE’s consultation on OWFs.  The consultation, essentially a technical one on how to statistically measure OWFs (but heaven knows to what end in terms of school accountability), has been widely regarded as a ‘softening up’ exercise for the proposed extension of academic selection. I say ‘softening up’, but others are less charitable seeing it as a not-so-nifty piece of hoodwinkery and wool-pulling. Others are more than a little concerned at the ‘Big State’ chicanery that is seeing data moved between the DfE, HMRC and the DWP at a level that makes even the highly technocratic New Labour administration look laissez-faire. 

What’s really interesting is that the data used by the DfE, and published in a consultation, appears to give succour to those who are arguing against increased selection by demonstrating just how rigged the existing system is in favour of the most affluent and against the least affluent. 

The consultation, however, glosses over this by pointing out that the JAMilies now known as OWFs are just as likely to attend grammars as comprehensives (ergo, an extension of selection will extend the number of OWFs making it to the promised land of selective education). 

All of which seems plausible, but which is rather neatly skewered by Dr Becky Allen of Education Datalab in her blogpost exploring the data behind the consultation. 

In short, the statistical manipulation of data about a very diverse group has been utilised to give credence to a policy proposal that doesn’t stack up, statistically or otherwise. All of which rather begs the question “instead of releasing another consultation that muddies the waters, why not release the outcomes of the earlier consultation on increased selection?”  But then again, we are still waiting – almost a year on – for the consultation on 90% EBacc coverage that concluded over a year ago, so no breath holding at the back. 

But this post doesn’t aim to do what Edudatalab and so many others can do so much better. Instead, my aim is to fight statistics with data in order to show that the whole debate around OWFs and selection is, or rather should be, a sideshow to the real ‘rhetoric versus reality’ main event: the increasing impoverishment of the much vaunted OWFs in the first place. In doing so, I want to link back to my previous blogpost on Universal FSM provision and the one before that on how we are aiming to support our own OWFs at Canons via our Community Heartbeat Initiative. 

The first thing that needs trumpeting very loudly is that, as reported by that pillar of the left-leaning anti-establishment The Economist, absolute poverty is on the increase and this is particularly the case for working families (OWFs perhaps?). Since 2012 these working families now account for the majority of families in absolute – as opposed to relative – poverty. The chart is astonishing but the reportage beneath it gives even more pause for thought. 

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have also noticed the significant upturn (stronger than all of the others) of children living in poverty. This is supported by some key findings of one of a number of reports by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) reported here. 

But perhaps The Economist and the IFS have other agendas: selling copies, securing airtime, website clicks, increased sponsorship and the like?  Where might we go for some more unbiased data on the struggles facing OWFs?  Perhaps some from parliament itself might be helpful here. 

And remember that the statistics for ‘all individuals’ in the table above includes pensioners who have been net recipients through the life of the 2010-17 administrations because of the impact of universal policies such as the annual minimum 2.5% increase in pensions courtesy of the triple-lock manifesto commitment. It would appear that universal approaches to benefits succeed, but it rather masks the increases in poverty of the working age population and their children. 

So, given that The Economist said that the increases in poverty cannot be entirely laid at the door of austerity, what is it that has made life ever-harder for OWFs in the past seven years? The IFS are helpful again on this one (all of the different reports I have used are available in the bibliography below). 

The primary reason for the increases in poverty SO FAR is the fact that increases in housing costs, particularly rentals, have far outstripped the increases in wages. This first graph shows that rents have increased by 11% in six years…

…whilst this second one shows real wages falling when inflation is factored in – and we are only just at the start of that particular rollercoaster, courtesy of Brexit. 

And, just in case we weren’t clear about how this relates to that gap between the the rhetoric and reality of the governments speeches and policies, the IFS conclude their report with this damning indictment. 

Perhaps, after all, the government are right to prioritise a statistical measure of what it means to be an OWF because, if things continue as they are, this group might well start to see the outcomes for their children heading to similar levels as those outcomes currently ‘achieved’ by free school meal and pupil premium children. 

No? Things can only get better?  After all, the Prime Minister has been in charge for less than a year and has been outspoken in her support for exactly these kind of families. Certainly her heart seems in the right place and the treasury has now abandoned the deficit elimination target. Perhaps policies such as the extension of selection are being matched across government and we will soon be leaving the dark days of austerity behind?  

Think again. Parliament’s own data says that the trajectory we are currently on is set fair to continue into the next decade, for children if not for pensioners (which does again rather support the case for a universal approach to benefits and social security provision, rather than a means tested one). 

The IFS go further – a whole lot further – in their gloomy prognostication for the coming half decade, suggesting that whilst median income is set to rise, it will not be enough to prevent a sharp increase in both relative and absolute poverty rates, with children again being at the sharp edge of this increase. 

Note here the impact of the recession (or, more likely, austerity) upon real median incomes so that the new norm is the shallow, bumpy growth predicted by every Keynesian economist back in 2010. 

Note also that this last chart indicates the impact of recent government reforms to in-work benefits as they work their way through the system. The government insists that these were the legacy of the previous administration, but the choice to enact them in spite of the rhetoric about JAMs and OWFs was theirs. The final point below explains this clearly. 

Quite simply put, the government has chosen to enact measures that will add another 2.8% of children to the realms of absolute poverty by 2022, taking it above 30% deep into our 21st century civil society. And what also needs to be taken into account is the fact that this stark analysis is based upon the forecasts made by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) whose forecasts since their inception have often been significantly downgraded. The situation could be a whole lot worse by the time we get to 2022. 

The final word on the impact of all this data analysis, again from the IFS, brings us back to the reality (as opposed to the rhetoric) for ‘Just About Managing’ families. 

Perhaps rather than rebranding them as ‘Ordinary Working Families’ they should go for something more accurate like ‘Soon to Not Be Managing’ families, because the prognosis does not look good for the future. 

What is really clear from all of this is that things have got worse for ordinary working  families (note the lack of upper case) in the recent past and that they are going to get much worse for them in the years to come. What is equally clear is that neither extension of selection, nor a statistical modelling that will be most likely used to pass the blame for declining outcomes of students from these families onto schools, will change the reality for those who are going to be dragged into the poverty trap that hangs over them like a sword of Damocles.  

For me, there are three things that are clear from this quick trawl of the problems facing, or to be faced by, ordinary working families. The first is that,  if we are to continue under conditions of a low-tax, low-spend austerity, our best chance to ameliorate the impact upon this group is to channel what there is of government spending into universalising social welfare, including free school meals, for children. It has worked for pensioners and can do the same for families with children. 

The second, and infinitely more preferable to me, is that we seek to abandon austerity completely. It has not cleared government debt as was promised back in 2010 (and again in 2015), but has simply transferred it into household debt, increased job insecurity, low pay and poor conditions of employment, exorbitant increases in house prices and rent costs, increased dependency on extra-governmental welfare such as foodbanks and, through all of these things, an impoverishment of just about managing and ordinary working families. 

The final thing that has become clear to me, but in many senses was always clear to me, is that educators cannot simply divide the responsibility for the educational welfare and the social welfare of the children of the families they serve. We cannot be responsible for one and not the other. Nor can we allow others to get away with rhetoric that does not match reality or reality that does not match rhetoric.


Rowntree report 


Economist article


Institute for Fiscal Studies 1

Click to access SN07096.pdf








Click to access ch2_gb2015.pdf


Click to access R107.pdf


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