In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference today, Philip Hammond said something that immediately jarred. To be honest, it all jarred a bit, but I mean this part in particular:
And then there is the skills challenge. We’ve made huge progress over the last six years. How many people, ten years ago, would have believed that in every year since 2014, Maths would be the most popular A-level subject in English schools?
I’ll leave those amongst you that way in inclined to start foaming at the idea of maths as a skill. I’m more interested in the numbers and the “truthiness” of the statement.
So, ten years ago the A-Level numbers for the top five subjects (along with the 2016 numbers) were as follows:
So we can see that the statement contains some truth. Ten years ago maths wasn’t the top A Level subject and now, ten years later, it is. So far, no reason for the jarring.
What jars is when you look at how it got to be that way. The rest of the truth, so to speak. First of all lets look at when we think these numbers could realistically have been affected by any policy implemented by the Conservative Party. And to make things easier, I’m going to allow events under the coalition government to count. I know, I’m all heart.
Whilst students often make indicative choices at some point during year 11 the final choice of A Levels will not be made until results are in for GCSEs. The coalition was elected in May 2010. I’m sure no one is going to claim any GCSE results were affected by them in that year, and to be honest it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that the results for 2011 were affected. So I’m going to say lets allow that the numbers starting A Levels may have been affected by the coalition in 2012 (a whole GCSE cycle, I think that fair). Which means only by the 2014 results could they have had a real effect.
If we look at just English and Maths numbers we see the following:
And if we look at the numbers from this point we see:
We can see three things.
Firstly, by the stage this government could have had any impact maths was ALREADY the largest A Level.
Secondly, the vast bulk of the heavy lifting in increasing this number is absolutely nothing to do with this government. Yes, a 3.7% increase is creditable, but when compared to the 66.3% increase over the ten year period all it could be said to show is that recent government policies have stifled the rate of increase.
Finally, we see that the continued mucking about with the GCSE English has had a detrimental effect on the English numbers and played a part in dropping the subject down to number two. Lets hope the same doesn’t happen when changes to the Maths GCSE filter through.
So, everything that Philip Hammond said was true. If we allow for the fact he was just talking about Maths we have made huge progress over the past 6 years (though if you include English its not true as that has fallen in numbers, which is why he wording seeks to exclude it). He elides between 10 years and 6 years but does not at any point tell an untruth.
But we can see these comments for what they really are.