Lies, damned lies and predictions
29 January 2008
Peter Kingston from The Guardian discussed CFE's publication
'Skills in Context 2.0'.
Within the paper, co-author Michael Davis, Managing Director of CFE warns that 'an over-simplification of the skills case, however well intended, has the potential to send policy implementation off in the wrong direction'.
Through a technique Michael calls 'fishing in footnotes' he tracks back the true origin of some readily used 'killer statistics' showing how things often aren't as they may seem!
One example is from Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, who in his budget statement in March 2006, pronounced that by 2020 there would be only 600,000 unskilled jobs in the British economy, this killer statistic has its origins in a paper called 'Alternative Skills Scenarios to 2020 for the UK Economy', which actually stated that by 2020 'fewer than 2% of the workforce, and those employed, are projected to have no formal qualifications'.
This paper's prediction about how many people in Britain will lack qualifications in 2020 has been turned into one about how many jobs will not need qualifications. The 600,000 killer statistic is now used widely within the skills debate. Michael Davis said 'this typifies the practice of using predominately supply-side models of analysis and then assuming the corresponding level of demand'.
The Guardian article can be found here and it is included in full below.
Beware statistical forecasts. They may well be telling you the wrong story. Peter Kingston reports
You might call it 2020 vision - that special gift that enables some people to predict with impressive confidence what things are going to be like 12 years from now.
The prime minister apparently has it, though it was when he was chancellor that it shone out. In his budget statement in March 2006, Gordon Brown pronounced that by 2020 there would be only 600,000 unskilled jobs in the British economy.
Where did he get such foresight?
Alan Johnson gave the game away in a Commons debate a year ago. "Leitch tells us," the then education secretary said "that by 2020 the number of jobs that require no qualifications will have shrunk from 3.6m to just 600,000 ..."
But actually Lord Leitch, in his report, Prosperity for All in the Global Economy, which has become such a seminal text for the government's skills policy, says: "No one can accurately predict future demand for particular skill types."
So how did Leitch get framed for something he never said? The answer was rooted out by Michael Davis of the Centre for Enterprise, a thinktank with skills and training among its special interests. By using a technique he calls "fishing in footnotes", he tracked Brown's statement back to an economics paper.
This document, Alternative Skills Scenarios to 2020 for the UK Economy, stated that by 2020 "fewer than 2% of the workforce, and those employed, are projected to have no formal qualifications". It was produced jointly by the Warwick Institute for Employment Research and Cambridge Econometrics for the Leitch review.
This paper's prediction about how many people in Britain will lack qualifications in 2020 has been turned into one about how many jobs will not need qualifications. "This typifies the practice of using predominately supply-side models of analysis and then assuming the corresponding level of demand," says Davis.
Though it is unjustified to turn a prediction about how many people will have qualifications into one about how many employers will want those qualifications, a growing list of people and organizations has repeated it. Brown came out with it again when he launched the "skills pledge" last February.
Just two weeks ago, the Conservative spokesman for children schools and families, Michael Gove, wrongly attributed to Leitch the belief that there will be only 600,000 unskilled jobs in the economy in 2020 in a Commons debate. He went on to say that he himself was "wary about predicting with such uncanny precision" the specific demand for particular types of labour so far into the future.
Recently John Coles, the senior civil servant in charge of the new diplomas, used the statistic in a presentation of the government's 14 to 19 policy.
"It is what civil servants call a killer fact," says Professor Ewart Keep, director of Skope, the UK research centre on skills, knowledge and organisational performance, who was chairing the event. "Once these facts are embedded in the brains of civil servants, they are trotted out endlessly."
Davis has been scrutinising skills pronouncements and exposing a number of killer facts. "I don't do this because I'm 'anti skills' - far from it," he says. "It is to highlight how an over-simplification of the skills case, however well intended, has the potential to send policy implementation off in the wrong direction."