Statistics Authority urges Cameron to review pre-release access to official statistics

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Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority,  has urged the government to reconsider current arrangements for pre-release access to official statistics by politicians and senior officials.
 
Following a number of complaints received by the Authority about David Cameron’s statement that “the good news will keep coming” at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Dilnot considered whether the remark constituted a breach of the Code of Practice on Official Statistics 2008.  Although the PM would have had access to the figures 24 hours before their official release,  it has not been established whether the PM did see the figures when he made the comment in Parliament.
 
Dilnot, in a letter to David Cameron, said “It is clear from media reports that, although this may not have been your intent, your remarks were indeed widely interpreted as providing an indication about the GDP figures.”
 
He continued “We believe that the current practices for pre-release access to official statistics are unsatisfactory, not least because they put those who have received such access in a difficult position, especially when they have to speak in public after receiving access and before publication.  The interpretation of your remarks is a clear example of the difficulties and risks created by the current arrangements.”
 
Dilnot has previously said the current arrangements are ‘absurd’, and affirmed his view by urging the government to reconsider the existing setup.  ”Since responsibility for determining the pre-release rules continues to rest with government, we would urge you to undertake a review of these arrangements and I would be happy to meet your senior officials to help in taking this forward.”, his letter concluded.
 
Roeland Beerten, director of professional and public affairs, commented “The Society fully supports the Authority’s intervention.  We have previously been clear about the need to significantly reduce or eliminate pre-release access.  We hope the government will respond positively to the Authority’s request for a review”.
 

Experts line up to debate ‘use and abuse of statistics’

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RSS executive director Hetan Shah is one a host of expert speakers lined-up to talk at an open debate looking at the use and misuse of statistics in the media, politics and in wider society.
 
The event, ‘The use and abuse of statistics’ aims to be a lively and relatively informal debate for anyone interested in how statistics are used in society today. Hetan will be joined by Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at the University of Surrey and BBC science presenter, Peter King, chair of petroleum engineering at Imperial College, Atle Hjorteland from Statoil and journalist/comedian Timandra Harkness. The debate is organised by think tank the Institute of Ideas, which recently hosted the Battle of Ideas weekend of debate at the Barbican and runs the Debating Matters competition for students.
 
The speakers will all examine aspects of the way in which statistics are used in debates on a wide range of issues from climate change to public health. Speakers will look at instances when statistics were used poorly in political debates, as well as our own attitudes and understanding of statistics. They will also look at society’s reliance on statistics and what’s likely to happen in the future as data becomes ever more ubiquitous.
 
The event, which is being held at the Metric Nightclub in the Imperial College Student Union in London, starts at 5pm and is expected to run until 7pm, 29 October 2012.
 

Gove backs development of new ‘maths for real life’ qualification

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The Department for Education has announced further funding into the study of maths post-16, this time to develop a new qualification for sixth-formers in England not studying maths at A-level.
 
The new qualification is aimed to encourage students to tackle real-life mathematical problems and boost England’s relatively low rates of participation in mathematics post-16. The announcement comes just days after the DfE announced a maths education programme to be undertaken by Cambridge University.
 
The new qualification would be designed to help students develop the skills to analyse real-life questions such as ‘how much would thermal expansion cause sea levels to rise?’, ‘how much can we trust opinion polls?’ and ‘how effective are speed cameras?’.
 
These were among scores of suggested questions in a much-cited blogpost by Timothy Gowers, a professor at the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics at Cambridge University. Previously, Gowers had been critical of attempts to create a ‘Use of mathematics’ A-level that aimed to relate mathematics more to real-life problems. ‘Interestingly it isn’t so much the syllabus that bothers me as the awful exam questions,’ he explained in his blog post.
 
Gowers then went on to pose dozens of mathematical questions that relate mathematics to real life situations. These have subsequently formed the basis on which Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) has been commissioned to develop a new post-16 maths qualification. MEI, which will receive funding of £275,000 from the DfE, confirmed that the curriculum would be ‘based on discussing and attempting to solve problems such as those on Professor Gowers’s weblog.’
 
‘Professor Tim Gowers’ brilliant blog has sparked huge interest in how we could radically improve maths teaching,’ Michael Gove said. ‘I am delighted that MEI is trying to develop the Gowers blog into a real course that could help thousands of students understand the power of mathematical reasoning and problem-solving skills.’
 
As part of the project, MEI will consider how the curriculum should be assessed. It also acknowledged that this new approach would need to be supported by extra training and teaching resources for teachers.
 
The move has been welcomed by the Royal Statistical Society: ‘It is excellent that the Government is backing the development of new maths courses for 16-year-olds which will have strong data handling and statistics at their heart,’ said RSS executive director Hetan Shah.
 
MEI’s project will be an important component of The Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education (ACME)’s overarching strategy to increase post-16 participation in mathematics. In November, ACME will host a workshop for awarding organisations and others to discuss in further detail the development of new courses.
 
*NB: the title and first paragraph of this article was amended on 1.11.12.
 

Society backs call to scrap pre-release access to official statistics

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RSS President Valerie Isham has written to prime minister David Cameron in support of the UK Statistics Authority’s call to abolish pre-release access to official statistics.
 
UK Statistics Authority chair, Andrew Dilnot, wrote to the prime minister [opens as pdf] last week, 25 October 2012, urging him to review the arrangements for pre-release access. The UKSA had received complaints that David Cameron breached the Code of Practice on Official Statistics 2008 when he had stated ‘the good news will keep coming’ at Prime Minister’s Questions the day before, prior to new GDP figures being released.
 
In her letter, Valerie Isham argued that pre-release access perpetuates a public perception of ‘political control or interference’. ‘In our view the practice of issuing ministerial or policy commentary to coincide with statistical releases is pernicious,’ she wrote. ‘It skews any debate over the figures and perpetuates the impression that ministers control the data.’ Professor Isham cited another example, when in December last year, consumer price data was inadvertently disclosed.
 
Finally, the RSS President noted that the power to set the arrangements for pre-release access rests with ministers and not with the UK Statistics Authority. This, she said, was a ‘further factor that compounds the lack of trust’, and urged the PM to consider reviewing current arrangements, ‘with the clear aim of seeking its abolition’.
 
A copy of the Society’s letter in full is available to view here.
 

New funding to support maths education post-16

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A new £2.5m maths education programme, funded by the Department for Education, has just been launched by the University of Cambridge. The programme aims to provide ‘innovative and stimulating materials’ to support teachers and students of maths post-16.
 
Led by Professor Martin Hyland, head of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Statistics at Cambridge, the programme aims to help students explore connections between different areas of mathematics, and support the development of key mathematical skills by producing materials to augment and support current teaching.
 
One of the programme’s aims will be to improve the way that probability is covered in schools. Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, also at Cambridge, will be closely involved in material concerned with probability and statistics.
 
Material will be published online and be freely accessible to all who wish to augment and support their current teaching. Pilot material is expected to be available by next summer and material will continue to develop over the next two years.
 

OECD World Forum reaffirms commitment to well-being programmes

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The 4th OECD World Forum was held this month (16-19 October, 2012) in New Delhi, India, where in-depth discussions on measuring well-being were undertaken by some of the leading experts in this area. Speakers included heads of state, eminent statisticians and Nobel prize-winning economists.
 
Under discussion was the broad concept of what constitutes well-being, the factors that contribute to a good life and how public policy can play a part in it. Nobel laureate and economist of Columbia University Joseph Stiglitz argued in his keynote speech that GDP was not enough to measure the success of a nation. ‘Our preoccupation with GDP makes it difficult for politicians to back policies that are good for society and for the environment but which might not result in an increase in GDP,’ he said.
 
Elsewhere in the conference, delegates were updated on the progress of initiatives taken since the last World Forum in 2009, when the OECD’s Better Life Initiative was launched. Many national programmes measuring well-being and progress were identified, including the UK’s own Measuring National Well-being programme, launched in 2010. David Cameron sent a video message talking about the project and the UK’s National Statistician, Jil Matheson, chaired a discussion on measuring well-being in individual countries.
 
Former RSS president Denise Lievesley, who currently chairs the European Statistics Advisory Committee, took part in a session on the role of social research, elected assemblies and civil society.
 
In the conference’s concluding statement (opens as pdf), the OECD repeated its commitment to promote better well-being measures globally as well as actively pursuing its wikiprogress platform and Better Life Index. ‘The drive towards better well-being measures will not be successful unless we show that these measures can lead to better policies,’ it said.
 
The next event has been scheduled for 2015.
 

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