Official Statistics on Educational Achievement in the U.K. – Strengths and Limitations

How useful are official statistics for understanding differences in educational achievement by social class, gender and ethnicity?

How do GCSE results vary by social class, gender and ethnicity?

The data below is taken from either the Department for Education’s document – Key Stage 4 performance 2019 (Revised), or Gov.uk ‘ethnicity facts and figures‘. The later shows data from 2017/18 (at time of writing this), but it is much more accessible than the ‘Key Stage 4 document’.

Firstly – GENDER –  Girls outperformed boys in all headline measures in 2019.

For example 46.6% of girls achieved both English and Maths at grade 5 or above, compared to only 40.0% of boys, and girls are much more likley to be entered for the Ebacc than boys (45.9% compared to 34.3%

Secondly – ETHNICITY – Chinese pupils are the highest achieving group. 75.3% of Chinese pupils achieved a ‘strong pass’ (grade 5 or above) in English and Maths, with Indian pupils being the second highest achieving group, at 62%

Black Caribbean pupils have the lowest achievement of any ‘large’ ethnic minority group, with only 26.9% achieving a grade 5 or above in English and Maths

Gypsy/ Roma and Irish Traveller pupils have the lowest levels of achievement with only 9.95 and 5.3% respectively achieving a strong pass in English and Maths.

Thirdly – SOCIAL CLASS – Here, instead of social class we need to use the Department for Education’s ‘disadvantaged pupils’ category, which is the closest we’ve got as a proxy for social class, but isn’t quite the same!

The DFE says that “Pupils are defined as disadvantaged if they are known to have been eligible for free school meals in the past six years , if they are recorded as having been looked after for at least one day or if they are recorded as having been adopted from care”.

In 2019, only 24.7% of disadvantages pupils achieved English and Maths GCSE at grade 5 or above, compared to almost 50% of all other pupils, meaning disadvantaged pupils are only half as likely to get both of these two crucial GCSEs.

Some Strengths of Official Statistics on Educational Achievement by Pupil Characteristic 

ONE – Good Validity (as far as it goes) – These data aren’t collected by the schools themselves – so they’re not a complete work of fiction, they are based on external examinations or coursework which is independently verified, so we should be getting a reasonably true representation of actual achievement levels. HOWEVER, we need to be cautious about this.

TWO – Excellent representativeness – We are getting information on practically every pupil in the country, even the ones who fail!

THREE – They allow for easy comparisons by social class, gender and ethnicity. These data allow us to see some pretty interesting trends – As in the table below – the difference between poor Chinese girls and poor white boys stands out a mile… (so you learn straight away that it’s not just poverty that’s responsible for educational underachievement)

FOUR – These are freely available to anyone with an internet connection

FIVE – They allow the government to track educational achievement and develop social policies to target the groups who are the most likely to underachieve – These data show us (once you look at it all together) for example, that the biggest problem of underachievement is with white, FSM boys.

Some Disadvantages of the Department for Education’s Stats on Educational Achievement

ONE – If you look again at the DFE’s Key Stage four statistics, you’ll probably notice that it’s quite bewildering – there are so many different measurements that it obscures the headline data of ‘who achieved those two crucial GCSEs’.

When it comes to the ‘Attainment 8’ or ‘Progress 8’ scores, it is especially unclear what this means to anyone other than a professional teacher – all you get is a number, which means nothing to non professionals.

TWO – changes to the way results are reported mean it’s difficult to make comparisons over time. If you go back to 2015 then the standard was to achieve 5 good GCSEs in any subject, now the government is just focusing on English and Maths, Ebacc entry and attainment 8.

THREE – These stats don’t actually tell us about the relationship between social class background and educational attainment. Rather than recording data using a sociological conception of social class, the government uses the limited definition of Free School Meal eligibility – which is just an indicator of material deprivation rather than social class in its fuller sense. Marxist sociologists would argue that this is ideological – the government simply isn’t interested in measuring the effects of social class on achievement – and if you don’t measure it the problem kind of disappears.

FOUR – and this is almost certainly the biggest limitation – these stats don’t actually tell us anything about ‘WHY THESE VARIATIONS EXIST’ – Of course they allow us to formulate hypotheses – but (at least if we’re being objective’) we don’t get to see why FSM children are twice as likely to do badly in school… we need to do further research to figure this out.

No doubt there are further strengths and limitations, but this is something for you to be going on with at least…

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Official Statistics in Sociology

The theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of official statistics in sociology.

Official Statistics are numerical information collected and used by the government and its agencies to make decisions about society and the economy.

This post considers some of strengths and limitations of using official statistics in social research,  focusing on practical, theoretical and ethical factors.

Official statistics are a type of secondary quantitative data and are one of the main methods you need to know about for the research methods component of A-level sociology.

Theoretical Factors

Theoretical advantages

Official Statistics make it very easy to get an overview of social life in Britain by, for example, clicking on the ‘UK snapshot’ or ‘focus on’ links on the ONS homepage.

Official statistics enable us to make comparisons between social groups and regions. The UK National Census is a good example of this.

They enable us to make historical comparisons over time because they often go back a long way – The British Crime Survey goes back to 1982 for example, League Tables go back until 1988 and and the UK Census goes back to 1841.

One of the most obvious strengths of official statistics is easy comparisons over time
One of the most obvious strengths of official statistics is easy comparisons over time

Some large data sets might not exist if they were not collected by the government – because individuals and universities simply don’t have the funds to do such large-scale research as required by the Census, while large private companies would only focus on data collection which is profitable.

Official Statistics are favoured by Positivists because they allow us to spot trends, find correlations and make generalisations. They also allow the research to remain detached so there is less room for the subjective bias of the researcher to interfere with the research process.

Theoretical Disadvantages

Some Official Statistics lack validity. Crime statistics are a good example of this – certain crimes are notorious for being under-reported to the police – such as Rape and Domestic Violence for example.

The way that some social trends are measured changes over time – sometimes making historical comparisons difficult. For example, they way the Police Recorded Crimes changed twice in 2000s.

Official statistics may also lack validity because they are collected by the state and massaged to make things look better than they actually are. The UK government has changed the way unemployment is measured several times over the last decades, typically bringing the number of officially unemployed people down – for example by reclassifying anyone who is receiving unemployment benefit but on a work-related training course as not being unemployed.

Marxist and Feminist Sociologists argue that official statistics serve the interests of elite groups – Data is only collected on things which do not harm those in power. Marxists argue that Corporate Crime and Financial Crimes of elites are not focused on by the government, while Feminists argue that domestic violence is not taken seriously by the state.

Feminists argue that more than 1/1000 women are victims of sexual offences annually
Feminists argue that more than 1/1000 women are victims of sexual offences annually

Similarly, official statistics reflect the biases and prejudices of those in power – The fact that African-Caribbeans and Muslims are over represented in prison suggests people from these groups have higher levels of criminality. But according to Marxist criminologists this is not the case – such groups are over-represented in jail because of racial profiling by the police – the police spend more time actively policing the black and Muslim communities (with more stop and searches for example) and this is what leads to the higher arrest and imprisonment rates. Official Statistics thus give us a misleading impression of reality.

Practical Factors

Practical advantages

Many official statistics are freely available to researchers and the general public. This is a distinct advantage over ‘privately collected data’ which is collected by companies – Facebook and Amazon, for example, have a lot of data on individuals, but they are not going to share it for free! Official Statistics are more likely to shared with the public because they are paid for by taxes.

They are generally easy to access and to navigate – by using the Office for National Statics (ONS) web site for example.

It is possible to access many official statistics from home, and you can do comparative social research without needing any ‘people skills’.

Practical Disadvantages

Even though these statistics are free, they are far from cheap to collect. The ONS employs 4000 people merely to collate this data. On top of this, think of the time it takes other government officials to collect data. The Census in 2011 cost hundreds of million pounds to produce.

Official Statistics are collected for administrative purposes rather than for research purposes. Thus the data which exists and the categories and indicators used might not fit a researcher’s specific research purposes.

Ethical Factors

Ethical Advantages

Official Statistics are collected in the ‘national interest’ and so avoid the biases of private research, which would only collect data which would be of interest to the particular researcher, or data which is is profitable.

Official Statistics enable us to check up on the performance of public bodies such as the police and schools, making sure tax payers’ money is spent efficiently.

Ethical Disadvantages

The collection of some statistics can have harmful effects.

The introduction of school league tables and the requirement that schools publish there results has led to more teaching the test, a decline in creativity in education, and education generally being much more stressful for both pupils and teachers.

The collection of statistics might really be about surveillance and control – The collection of data on school performance for example enables control of teachers while the collection of data on pupils allows ‘problem pupils’ to be identified and managed by social services from a young age.

Related Posts 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Sociology

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

Family Trends in the UK (2016) – outlines some official statistics on families

Is the UK really the 18th most gender equal country in the world? (looks at the problems of official statistics on gender equality)