Conservative's 'ordinary working class family' grammar school claim is ‘statistical jiggery-pokery’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The Conservative Party stands accused of employing “statistical jiggery-pokery” in its General Election manifesto in a bid to try and justify its plan to expand selective grammar school education.

A respected academic has raised the concerns after the Conservatives claimed that selective schools have more “ordinary, working class” children than non-selective schools (as a proportion of intake).

The exact manifesto claim states: “Contrary to what some people allege, official research shows that slightly more children from ordinary, working class families attend selective schools as a percentage of the school intake as compared to non-selective schools.”

However, Alice Sullivan, professor of sociology at University College London, has dismissed the “startling claim” as “clearly false” and accused the Conservatives of a “quite clear sleight of hand”.

The basis of the Conservative claim comes from how “ordinary, working class family” is defined.

The manifesto claim is based on statistics in a Department for Education consultation document (Analysing Family Circumstances and Education, April 2017) showing the average intakes of selective and non-selective schools.

The DfE’s statistics identify four categories of pupils:

  1. Pupils on both Pupil Premium and FSM (who make up 15 per cent of pupils in non-selective state schools vs and three per cent in selective schools).
  2. Pupils on Pupil Premium but not FSM (17 per cent vs 6 per cent).
  3. Pupils not on Pupil Premium but in families with income below the median (35 per cent vs 36 per cent).
  4. Pupils in families with above median income (32 per cent vs 53 per cent).

However, the same document defines “ordinary, working families” as “a group who are not entitled to Pupil Premium but earning modest incomes as ordinary working families”.

As such, the Tory manifesto refers only to the third category of pupils when making its claim about selective education – it ignores pupils on FSM or Pupil Premium. Furthermore, it amends the “ordinary working families” definition to “ordinary working class families”.

In a blog post for the Education Media Centre, a charity that raises public awareness of research and evidence in education, Prof Sullivan said the manifesto claim went “beyond selective use of evidence, and enters the territory of statistical jiggery-pokery”.

She writes: “The DfE document in effect redefines ‘ordinary working families’. It does so by excluding families who are in receipt of Pupil Premium funding (which essentially means the most disadvantaged, regardless of whether their parents are in work).

“The manifesto compounds this by extending this definition from ‘ordinary working families’ to ‘ordinary working class families’ (emphasis added). As a result, the bottom third of families no longer count as either ordinary or working class, and are left out of the calculation.”

In a separate blog on the same website, Prof Sullivan adds: “It’s a piece of doublethink that excludes families who are in receipt of the Pupil Premium from being ordinary working families. And then the manifesto compounds this bizarre sleight of hand by extending the definition from ‘ordinary working families’ to ‘ordinary working class families’ so Hey Presto, the bottom third of families no longer count as ordinary or as working class

“Actually the DfE figures show very clearly that families on below median incomes, who might think they are quite ordinary and quite working class, are much less likely to get grammar places. So we know that there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that grammar schools promote social mobility and actually lots of evidence to suggest that they don’t. (The Conservatives are) using quite clear sleight of hand to misrepresent the evidence and claim that grammar schools are taking their share of ordinary working class kids.”

You can read Prof Sullivan’s blog posts at and

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