Harvey Goldstein – an obituary

Harvey Goldstein. Photo: Bristol University


The death of Professor Harvey Goldstein from COVID-19 was announced last week. He was a distinguished statistician, having been awarded the Guy Medal in Silver by the Royal Statistical Society. He was joint editor of the prestigious RSS journal Series AStatistics in Society. A good friend of JVL, over the recent period of controversy over allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party his was a calm voice bringing respect for the evidence to the fore.

As a statistician he was noted for his work on multi-level modelling.  It was his critique of school ‘league tables’ of examination performance that brought him to the attention of a more general public. These tables were set up by the Thatcher government in the 1980’s, on the grounds that information on exam results would enable parents to make informed choices of schools for their children. But you cant measure something without changing it. The effect of the league tables was to force schools into competition with each other. The educationally damaging result has been a concentration on ‘working to the examination’.

But in any case these crude comparisons ignored the fact that the educational attainments of pupils entering school vary widely, especially between schools in disadvantaged as opposed to prosperous areas. Harvey’s criticism of the tables led to their progressive reform, with a system based on the ‘value added’ by the school in transforming the prospects of its pupils. But he remained a critic of the whole system, which he saw as an abuse of performance data as crude accountability measures.

The reason for JVL publishing this short appreciation is that his calm voice was among the most authoritative in debunking the aggressively hyped narrative of Labour antisemitism. In a blog in February 2019 (republished by JVL) he was gently dismissive of the almost evidence-free assertions which were so prevalent. Gently, because that was his invariable style. But his fierce desire to call out the abuse of data in public debate shone through. He thought statistics should be used to improve society, not to deceive or control it.

He took up this issue again and at length in his substantial article Uses and abuses of statistical evidence: how much antisemitism is there in the British Labour party? which appeared in Radical Statistics Journal last summer. After carefully reviewing the evidence he came to a very similar conclusion to that of JVL (that is, that the case that antisemitism in Labour is rampant does not stand up) but with the added weight of his statistical reputation.

Harvey Goldstein was Jewish – indeed born in Whitechapel. His father was a button manufacturer and his mother a hat maker. His distinguished career took him to professorial  posts at the Institute of Education in London and then, after retirement, at the University of Bristol and London’s Institute of Child Health. Tributes from fellow statisticians can be found here.



Comments (7)

  • John Brooke says:

    I am very sorry to hear of Harvey’s death. I met him for a short time in the 1990s when I was a software consultant for the UK National Computing Service helping one of his students, Jon Rasbash, to enable the multi-level modelling software to run on the UK supercomputers. Harvey was gentle and courteous and could explain the concepts behind his work to those who, like myself, had no formal training in statistics. The misuse of statistical evidence is one of the great scandals of our political and economic system and, as the COVID-19 crisis shows, such misuse can be literally lethal. Harvey was a voice of reason and the impacts of his work will long outlive him.

  • RH says:

    I’m saddened to hear this news.

    Harvey Goldstein was an inspiration for evidence-based policy. I clearly recall a presentation of his (at a BERA conference in the early days of School Effectiveness research) demonstrating the extreme susceptibility of even ‘sophisticated’ league tables to initial assumptions. The lecture was a model of clarity and seminal in outlining what all governments then ignored – with inevitable results.

    He will be sadly missed as a voice of sanity in a time of flatulent ignorance in policy making.

  • Miriam David says:

    Harvey Goldstein was a wonderful wise and indeed learned or erudite man, whom it was a pleasure to know. Formally he had been a colleague of mine briefly at the Institute of Education, London and more generally through our many common networks of professional social scientists. I also have many mutual friends and colleagues, including meeting him at choir concerts in North London. I know from the various networks how his wise counsel will be sorely missed. His abilities with statistics were legion and his loss is great for those of us needing his excellent critiques of the rise of antisemitism in the Labour Party.

  • Tony Graham says:

    Awful news. Harvey and I were in the Highgate Ward in the 1980s. He played a brilliant role in the debates around education and the worsening tendency towards testing, exams, SATs, league tables and all that rot. As a statistician (at the Institute of Ed then), he wonderfully held the government and their legion of Gradgrinds to account when it came to facts, numbers and spin. Same again, more recently, over the anti-semitism debacle: his was a voice of reason, clarity and sanity. I always thought that when Harvey was on your side, you felt that the angels were with you. Hadn’t seen him for a long time but still I can’t believe that this has happened. You don’t come across people like Harvey all that often. He was a good, honest, gentle, decent person and will be much missed.

  • John Booth says:

    In the early years of the Thatcher government when I was working for what was then the National Union of Teachers, the careful work of Harvey Goldstein was extremely useful in combating the well-publicised “research” by some of the Prime Minister’s political allies in right-wing “think tanks”.
    Insofar as reasonable debate was ever possible in that turbulent and intemperate time when Sir Keith Joseph was Education Secretary, Harvey’s work helped efforts to keep it within sane and rational bounds.

  • Wally Morgan says:

    Harvey was also an accomplished musician, playing first flute for years with the Palace Band – a wind ensemble meeting regularly at CUFOS, the old Alexandra Palace station building, and performing from time to time at venues in North London. His fellow musicians will miss his gentle nature and his consistent ability to produce mellifluous sounds.

  • This remarkable contribution from the late Harvey Goldstein underlines the importance of using evidence to fight back against this horrendous smear campaign, and shows that the Labour leadership failed to do this.

    There is one point Harvey does not mention, and that you may like to consider. Has the fight back been weakened by representing the smear campaign more as an attack on the Labour left than as an attack upon the nation as a whole, and upon the integrity of our institutions?

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