Treasury secretary Liz Truss shows shaky grasp of stats in Commons

Janet Downs's picture

'We [the Treasury] were able to increase the education budget by £1.3 billion last year...', the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss told the Commons on 5 March. 

 This is not true.  The Treasury did not increase education funding.  It wasn’t new money.  It wasn’t extra money.  It was moved from inside the education budget not an injection from outside.

Truss avoided answering a question from Tory MP Nigel Huddleston who asked if the Treasury could assure him that ‘skills and education funding’ would get ‘priority attention’ in the next spending round. 

The treasury secretary avoided committing the Treasury to giving any attention, never mind priority attention, to education funding.   The government needed ‘to ensure that we are spending money on the right things.’

Parroting schools minister Nick Gibb, she said,

‘For example, the changes this Government have made to phonics have seen our children go from some of the poorest readers in Europe to some of the best.’

This is not true.  Truss is presumably referring to the most recent PIRLS global reading test in 2016. English 10-year-olds were ranked joint 8th – their highest position.  But this was little to do with changes made by ‘this Government’ even if this Government had been in power since 2010 instead of from 2017.

The leap from England’s low ranking of 19th in 2006 was not in 2016 but in 2011 when English pupils jumped to joint 10th. 

Pupils taking the 2011 PIRLS test would have learnt to read when Labour was in power.  And phonics, which both Truss and Gibb claim is responsible for the improved PIRLS position, were rolled out under Labour.  This is the then education secretary Ed Balls on 21 November 2007:

We are implementing phonics and synthetic phonics across every school in the country...’

This was despite his saying, in the same breath, ‘…it is for every school to decide, child by child, how they teach reading.’

Leave aside the contradiction in Balls’ announcement (it appears false promises of school ‘autonomy’ preceded the propaganda about academies), if Truss and Gibb are correct that introducing phonics was responsible for the 2016 PIRLS result, then this was because of action taken by Ed Balls.

Correlation isn’t causation, of course.  But next time a minister says post-2010 phonics policies are responsible for reading results, it would be acceptable to shout, ‘Balls!’

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