Sam Freedman

Balls serves up some Brownies

Balls serves up some Brownies
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CoffeeHouse has been running a series of Brownies – statistical tricks which are used to create a misleading image. But this risks overlooking the important contribution of Ed Balls in the field of manipulating government data. His controversial claim that one-in-six schools is breaking the admission code is an absolute classic in the genre.

To arrive at this crucial “one in six” statistic, Balls did his analysis on three local authorities and projected that across England. His key figure was that 96 out of 570 schools in such areas were found to be in violation. But what marks a violation? This is where Balls worked his magic.

Of the 96 schools in “violation”, 50 were guilty of technical offences which would not have resulted in any child missing out on a place. 45 were listed only for “failure to prioritise children in care correctly”. They will have put children in care at the top of their oversubscription criteria - instead of allocating these children places first, then determining whether the school is oversubscribed and then applying the criteria to remaining children. Was there a wicked plot? Hardly – the schools simply failed to update their procedures following the recent changes to the admissions code.

A further five schools in Northants were only in breach because the schools failed to mirror the statutory wording on SEN correctly. So not a single child would be denied a place. After eliminating these schools just 8 out of Manchester’s 156 schools and 7 of Northamptonshire’s 307 were in breach. So in these two authorities, just one in 30 schools breached the code in the way Balls would have us believe.

Which leaves us with Barnet, the LA in which all six schools who inappropriately asked for financial donations were based (five were Jewish). Most breaches indentified in Barnet were due to nine Jewish schools. These schools do seem to be operating restrictive admissions policies and this is a serious issue. But a nationwide problem? Hardly. It is a local issue – most of England’s 300,000 Jews live in Barnet. As Matthew d’Ancona pointed out on Sunday, the need for a financial supplement is partly due to the sad fact that such schools need extra security as well as paying for non-curricular religious instruction. This is not to say the schools are right to demand it. But it is intellectually dishonest to make out, as Balls did, that this is a UK-wide phenomenon.

This leaves us one with a nagging thought. Was the inclusion of Barnet entirely random? Or was Mr Balls fully aware that one unrepresentative authority could produce a distorted figure? If he wanted to distract attention from the fact that 100,000 parents were denied their first choice of secondary school, he could have relied on this to be a powerful and new story. Top schools forcing out poor children: this narrative would have been perfect distraction. Or would have been, had it been true.

So all of the above could well be a contribution to CoffeeHouse’s list of Brownies. But as Michael Heseltine memorably put it, this isn’t Brown. It’s Balls.

Sam Freedman is a Research Director at Policy Exchange.