BBC News website editor Steve Herrmann is not happy. In previous years, the Beeb site has carried full school league table data, as soon as the embargo is lifted at 09:30am. But not this year.
‘This is because the government has tightened up on the media’s pre-release access to official statistics,’ he explains. ‘In the past, we have generally got the official results a week in advance, under embargo, to compile and check tables. This time, we will have had sight of the data for just 24 hours.’
But, in fact, it’s not specifically the reduced lead time that’s the problem here. More accurately, it’s the reduced lead time to deal with what DCSF chucks at them.
The school results that are supplied to the news media are not in a readily accessible form. In the case of the secondary schools, there are two large spreadsheets, each with a number of pages… Each sheet has dozens of columns, and a row for each school and college. Formatting the essential benchmarks from all this for publication, using computer scripts to interrogate the data, compiling and then proofreading them, takes hours of work.
In other words, DCSF are unable – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment – to supply the data in a format which assists the end users (in this case, the entire national media) to do their jobs.
And it’s led to an official letter of complaint – signed jointly by the BBC, Press Association and national newspapers – to the DCSF’s chief statistician. ‘With less than 24 hours’ preparation time, it will be much more difficult to produce any meaningful analysis of the information and to ensure there are no errors,’ they write. ‘The result is that the main aim of the government and of our organisations – to provide an essential service to parents choosing a secondary school for their sons and daughters – will be thwarted.’
Statistical release procedures are a touchy subject; and school league tables are even touchier. Statisticians don’t like issuing them, because people insist on doing nasty things like – imagine! – ranking them in order. Many schools don’t like them either. But I can tell you for a fact, parents absolutely lap them up.
If DCSF, at whatever level, believes in the publication of this data, they need to make it easy for the major communication channels – the newspapers, and the BBC website – to republish it to their huge readerships. That clearly isn’t happening.