Ruling

12490-22 Portes v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      6th July 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy


Summary of Complaint 

1. Jonathan Portes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Telegraph breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “One fifth of pupils ‘missing’ from classrooms since pandemic”, published on 15 November 2022. 

2.The article was based on a report released by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a think tank. The article said the report claimed that “a fifth of all children have been ‘missing’ from school since the pandemic”. The article went on to report that there had been a “dramatic increase […] in the number of youngsters being home educated driven by parents pulling their children out of school following lockdown, according to a new study by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ)”. It said that “nearly two million of England’s nine million pupils are failing to attend school regularly, according to [the CSJ’s] analysis of the latest official figures”, and that this “includes 1.67 million children classified by the Department for Education (DfE) as ‘persistently absent’ during the autumn term of 2021, an increase of 82 per cent from the previous year”. 

3. It went on to state that the “two million” figure included “the 81,000 [pupils] who are home educated which the report notes is an ‘alarming’ 34 per cent higher than before the pandemic.” The article went on to explain that “officials at the DfE say the data on persistently absent children in the autumn term of 2021 is not representative of a typical school year as it was driven up by pupils testing positive for Covid. But the figure of 1,672,179 persistently absent children is still significantly higher than the previous year – when it stood at 915,877 – and the year before when it was 922,566.” 

4. The article also appeared online in substantially in the same format; this version of the article was published on 15 November 2022. 

5. The complainant said the headline was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as it reported that “one fifth of pupils [were] 'missing' from classrooms since the pandemic.” He said that this inaccuracy was repeated in the article’s statement that “nearly two million of England's nine million pupils are failing to attend school regularly, according to [the CSJ’s] analysis of the latest official figures". He also said that the article was inaccurate to state that “a major report has found” that “a fifth of all children have been ‘missing’ from school” since the pandemic, because the CSJ report at no point claimed one fifth of pupils, or two million pupils, had been “missing” since the pandemic. Rather, the report described some children as “persistently absent”. 

6. He said the only use of the word “missing” in the report was in the foreword, which stated “an increasing number of children missing from school are being home educated”. He said that the CSJ report was specifically about 81,000 children who are home educated. He said this was made clear by the title of the report, “OUT OF SIGHT AND OUT OF MIND: Shining a spotlight on home education in England”. 

7.The complainant provided statistics from the Department for Education (DfE), that he said were the “official figures” which the article claimed had been analysed by the report. The DfE figures stated that "23.5% of pupils were persistently absent in the autumn term 2021 (i.e. missed 10% or more sessions). Again, this had been driven by illness (including positive COVID cases), with 14.0% of all pupils missing 10% or more sessions due to illness alone." 

8. The complainant said the DfE figures he had provided demonstrated that the pupils were not “missing”. Rather, he said the pupils were absent from school for more than more than seven days in Autumn 2021. He said that the cause of the majority of these absences was Covid-19; the children were not “missing”, as there was nothing in the figures to suggest the school did not know where the pupils were. 

9. Additionally, the complainant said it was inaccurate to report that the pupils had been missing “since the pandemic” because Autumn 2021 – the period of time to which the figures referred – was during the pandemic. He said that “during Covid” was not the same as “since Covid”, and “absent for 10% of the time or more” was not the same as “absent from the school setting”. 

10. The complainant quoted the DfE statistical release referenced in the CSJ report to support his position: “the absence rate across autumn and spring terms combined was 7.4%. In spring term 2021/22, the absence rate was 7.9%, an increase from 6.7% in autumn term 2021, having been consistently around 5% in recent years. The majority of the increase compared to previous years was due to illness, accounting for 5.0% of possible sessions in autumn and spring term 2021/22 combined. Illness includes where positive COVID-19 cases were reported.” 

11. The complainant also considered it to be a breach of Clause 1 to report claims from think tank reports as fact – in this case the headline’s claim that “one fifth of pupils are missing” – without distinguishing the statements within the headline as claims from the think tank. He said if the claim was, in of itself, inaccurate, attributing it to a source within the article was not enough to mitigate the inaccuracy in the headline. 

12. The publication did not accept that the headline or article were inaccurate in the manner suggested by the complainant. To support its position, it provided a press release from the CSJ which had accompanied the report. It noted that the claim that a fifth of children were “missing” from school reflected the language used in the press release by the CSJ and their press team’s correspondence: the headline of the press release stated that “nearly 2 million children [are] missing school regularly,” and the opening line went on to claim that “nearly two million children in England are missing from school, according to a new study from a leading think-tank warning that classroom attendance has reached a ‘crisis point’.” 

13. The press release also included a direct quote from the CSJ’s Head of Education. This said that the CSJ was “seeing a crisis in school attendance, with nearly 2 million children missing from school.” 

14. The publication said the complainant was ultimately disagreeing with the report and its authors, and the publication was still entitled to cover the report, regardless of whether complainant considered the report itself to be accurate – provided that the publication ensured that the contents of the report were reflected accurately, which it contended was the case. 

15. The publication then said the article had made clear what it meant by the use of the phrase “missing” in the headline and the article: it was referring to children who were “failing to attend school regularly”. It also said that: the article made clear that one fifth was the equivalent of almost two million of the nine million pupils in England; and that the article explained that that figure of almost two million comprised the 1.67 million classified by the Department for Education (DfE) as “persistently absent” during the autumn term of 2021, as well as the 81,000 pupils who are home educated. The 81,000 figure was based on analysis and estimates calculated by the CSJ as of October 2021, taken from data from a range of local authorities in England. The children who were “missing”, the publication said, were the ones who were “home educated” and “persistently absent” – it said the articles explained that the DfE defined this as any child missing more than 10 per cent of school for whatever reason, including children who were ill and then returned to school on one or more occasions. 

16.The publication also denied that the complainant had correctly identified the “official figures” the article was based on – it was not the DfE figures the article reported on, but the press release and the report from the CSJ. 

17.The publication said the headline itself was not inaccurate, and was supported by the text of the article as required by the terms of Clause 1 (i). It said the article made clear the basis for this claim in the sentence: “nearly two million of England’s nine million pupils are failing to attend school regularly […] this includes 1.67 million children classified by the Department for Education (DfE) as ‘persistently absent’ during the autumn term of 2021”. 

18.The publication also said the complainant was incorrect to state that the CSJ report only referred to children being home-schooled, as it also referred to “a group of children who struggled to attend school regularly and who have fallen through the gaps in our education system.” It said the Children’s Commissioner was clear in the report that these children were “missing”, that the work of the report was to “find” them, and that there were serious concerns that children who were frequently absent and those who were home schooled are not receiving a basic level of education. 

19. The publication also said it was not inaccurate to refer to the figures covering the time “since the pandemic”, as the UK’s pandemic response began in March 2020 and the figures were from the autumn term of 2021, over a year after the “beginning of the pandemic”. The publication also said the complainant’s position was speculative: he was in no position to know the details of any of the absences, and whether they were caused by Covid as he asserted. 

20. Addressing the complainant’s concerns that the publication, in any event, should not be able to report on statistics from a think tank as a claim of fact, it noted that the headline used quotation marks around the word “missing” to indicate that this was the report’s characterisation and that the article was going to go on to explain exactly what was meant by the term “missing”. 

21. The complainant accepted that the CSJ had made claims about pupils being “missing” from school in its press release, but said that these claims were unsourced, unidentified and did not appear in the report, which he said exclusively focused on the 81,000 home-schooled children. He provided recent data from the DfE, which he said was timelier than its annual figures on pupil absence. He said that, given the data he provided showed the pupil absence rate to be around 2% on any given day, it was clearly misleading to suggest that 20% of pupils were missing from schools. He also provided a tweet from an individual he described as respected education expert who had said that the article’s headline was “garbage”. 

Relevant Clause Provisions 

Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator. 

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for. iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Findings of the Committee 

22. An important aspect of the Committee’s consideration of this complaint was the extent to which a publication is entitled to rely on a press release to fulfil its obligation to take care not to print inaccurate information. The Committee emphasised that an uncritical reliance on press releases could represent a failure to take care over accuracy in some circumstances. However, in this case, where a press release came from a well-established organisation with an expertise in the article’s subject matter, and where the article clearly attributed the claims to the organisation, the Committee found that relying on the press release as the basis of the publication’s reporting did not, in of itself, represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. 

23. Notwithstanding this point, the publication was still required to take care over the accuracy of the presentation of the think tank’s claims, in particular in the headline of the article. The Committee noted that there was some ambiguity in the headline’s reference to the children being “missing”, which could refer to children missing from school entirely or children missing some school sessions. However, the Committee noted that it was not considering the headline in isolation: the Code makes clear that headlines must be supported by the text of an article, and ambiguous headlines generally do not raise a breach of Clause 1 – provided the meaning of such headlines is clarified by the text of the article. 

24. In this case, the Committee noted the word “missing” was in inverted commas in the headline, indicating that this phrase was a characterisation or summary. Its meaning was then made clear in the third paragraph of the article, which defined the “missing” children as pupils who were “failing to attend school regularly”. The article also made clear what “one fifth” meant: it was “almost two million of England’s nine million pupils” including “1.67 million children who are classified by the Department for Education (DfE) as ‘persistently absent’” as well as “the 81,000 who are home educated”. The article also made clear that the headline’s reference to “since the pandemic” referred to figures relating to “the autumn term of 2021”, meaning there was a comparison made between before autumn term 2021 and the time period prior to the pandemic – which was what the CSJ report focused on. Where it was not in dispute that the autumn term 2021 had occurred “during the pandemic”, the Committee did not consider it significantly inaccurate or misleading to refer to the time period after this as “since the pandemic” – particularly in circumstances where it was made clear in the article the specific time period the headline was referring to. Where the headline was supported and clarified by the text of the article, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

25. Moreover, where the headline included the word “missing” in inverted commas, and the second sentence of the article attributed the claim to a “new study by the Centre for Social Justice”, the Committee considered the headline to be sufficiently distinguished as a claim attributed to a source, rather than a statement of fact. 

26. The Committee then turned to the question of whether it was significantly inaccurate to report that “a major report ha[d] found” a “fifth of all children have been “missing” from school since the pandemic”. It was accepted that this exact figure did not appear to be in the think tank report. However, the figure did appear in a press release from the organisation about the research, and at no point did it appear that the DfE had disputed it. Where the one fifth figure had been presented by the organisation, the Committee did not consider it a point of significance whether it had been shared in a press release about the report or the report itself. There was no significant inaccuracy on this point. 

Conclusion 

27. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial action required 

28. N/A 

Date complaint received: 10/01/2023

Date complaint concluded: 16/06/2023