Monday, 22 August 2011

A made-up statistic

I was struck by this statistic in a Spectator article about the riots, written by Harriet Sergeant
A full 63 per cent of white working class boys, and just over half of black Caribbean boys at the age of 14 have a reading age of seven or below.
That is spectacularly implausible, so I went searching for the source.  I found a report titled Wasted published by The Centre for Policy Studies on 27th November 2009, written by the same Harriet Sergeant. (The CPS was founded by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher and describes itself as "one of Britain's leading think tanks".)  The report tells us on page 10:
White working class boys are most at risk of under-performing with 63%  unable  to  read  and  write properly at 14 compared to 43% of white girls from a similar background. Black working class boys do not do much better. Just over half of them, 54%, can not read or write properly at 14.
 That looks like the same statistic, but with a much vaguer description of the underperformance.  But reading on to page 51 (ok, I admit, I didn't actually read it all) we find:
63% of 14 year old white working class boys have a reading ability of half their age. Over half, 54% of 14 year old black Caribbean boys have a reading age of seven
The p10 statistic carries a citation, to "The Daily Mail, 13 August, 2007."  Citing the Daily Mail in a purportedly scholarly paper smacks of desperation, but I ploughed on.  To its credit, that newspaper maintains an on-line archive, in which I found this report on a Bow Group publication
White working-class boys were found to be most at risk of under-performing, with 63 per cent unable to read and write properly at 14.  This compares to 43 per cent of white girls from similar backgrounds and 54 per cent of working-class black boys.
So to the Bow Group (the Bow Group describes itself as "the oldest - and one of the most influential - centre-right Think-Tanks in Britain").  The statistic appears in a table in this document  by Chris Skidmore (then chairman of the Bow Group), written in August 2007.  The document cites this government spreadsheet which contains the same numbers (in "Table 9: Achievements at Key Stage 3 English at Level 5 and above in 2006, by ethnicity, eligibility for free school meals and gender").

Being eligible for free school meals means a child has a parent or carer in receipt of a govenment benefit paid to people on low incomes, so it is talking about the poorest children.  That is not the same as "working class":  57% of the population identifed themselves as working class in a 2007 British Social Attitudes survey, as reported by the BBC.  15% of the boys in the spreadsheet were eligible for free school meals.

The educational achievement in the table is reaching level 5 in Key Stage 3 English.  KS3 is the first three years of secondary-school education (ages 11-14).  Here is an outline of the Key Stage levels : most pupils reach Level 2 by the end of Key Stage 1 (age 7), Level 4 by the end of Key Stage 2 (age 11) and Level 5 or 6 by the end of Key Stage 3.  The assessments in English cover reading and writing, so the data are not specifically about reading.  That aside, if you want to translate failure to reach level 5 into a reading age, you could plausibly describe it as eleven or below.  Which is not what you'd want from your 14-year-old, but is not nearly as bad as "seven or below".

So how did the mostly accurate statistic on page 10 of Harriet Sergeant's 2009 report turn into the tosh in her recent article?  Here's an article by her in the Guardian, published at the same time as her CPS report.
at the age of fourteen, 63% of white working class boys and 55% of black Caribbean boys has a reading age of seven or less
So even at the time she had the wrong statistic from page 51 in her mind.  Furthermore, this government website dated 22nd December 2009  links to the Wasted study and reports it as saying
Almost two thirds (63%) of 14-year-old white working class boys and more than half (54%) of 14-year-old black Caribbean boys have a reading age of seven
I guess that whoever wrote that had their attention drawn to the juicy statistic by someone, very possible Ms Sergeant herself.  I speculate further that in an early version of Wasted the statistic was wrong both times it was used, and someone went through the paper checking the citations and corrected the version with the citation attached.  Either they didn't tell Harriet Sergeant, or they did and she forgot.

There's a clue in the 2007 Daily Mail article to how the confusion first arose: the article starts with a selection of eye-catching statistics, including "at 14, one in five boys has a reading ability of a pupil half his age".  I speculate that this got mixed up from in Harriet Sergeant's mind with the 63% statistic from further down the article.

This statistic has appeared in the Guardian, in Prospect magazine, in the Spectator, and in the last few days in The Telegraph and in a Dominic Lawson article in The Independent.  And it's completely wrong.

Update: repeating my internet searches, I've found this article by Clive Power, casting doubt on various points in the Spectator article, starting with the one investigated here.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. (sorry - typo)

    Paul, thanks for you comment on my article. An excellent analysis by you and noted by me in an update.

    And having read you other blog, I wish you all the best as well.