Thursday, February 23, 2006

Doing the Maths - Properly

One of the stranger newspaper features is the Gavyn Davies column in the Guardian, "Gavyn Davies does the maths". Doing maths in this case seems to be finding a lot of numbers, rather than actually using them for any specific numerical purpose, but leaving that aside, it is living proof that you can manipulate statistics to make arguments sound far stronger than they actually are.

Today, Davies turns to the subject of grammar schools. The column isn't too bad, but where it deals with the privilege of independent schools, it manipulates figures in a way that can only mislead (for the sake of my sanity, I've not put the numbers in bold type, as they appear in the original article).

At age 11, 7% of all pupils are in independent schools. However, by age 16, 25% of those attaining five grade A GCSEs are in private education. And at 18, 44% of those who gain entrance to Oxbridge come from the private sector.

By age 18, more than 7% of all pupils are in independent schools. Yes, there is still an imbalance between the number of pupils in state and private education, and the number gaining entrance to Oxbridge. But the gap is nowhere near as large as Davies' article suggests (and I suspect he knows that).

Moreover, it is also often overlooked that the proportion of state school applicants to Oxbridge is roughly the same as the proportion of state school applicants accepted to Oxbridge. The problem therefore may not be one of bias, or different kinds of education - but rather that too many state school pupils do not apply to Oxbridge.

The rest of the article also rests on misconceptions, to me. For example:

It may be news to many Tories (and to the prime minister, for that matter), but the existence of grammar schools also implies the existence of secondary moderns. And nobody seems ready to argue for more of them.

That's undoubtedly partly true, but it falls into the trap of believing that a reinstituted grammar school system would be identical to that which was scrapped in the Crosland reforms. Of course, the idea that was originally intended for a selective system was tripartite, not bipartite - and included technical colleges, providing specific vocational training, as another alternative to secondary moderns. Yes, some people would still be in secondary moderns, but not all of the "75% who do not get into grammar schools".

If Davies was really doing the maths, his case would stand up more fully.