Gove 'talked up' league table slide

England's much-lamented slide down the international education league tables may not be as bad as it seems, according to a report by a leading academic.

The study by Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, claims that political "spin" rather than a drop in standards may have been responsible for the decline.

He argues that Labour "talked up" the findings of tests in 2000 which placed England fourth in science, seventh in literacy and eighth in maths of all Western nations, despite the fact that this country's results should not have been included because too few pupils sat the tests to meet the criteria for inclusion.

The exaggerated performance in 2000 paved the way for Education Secretary Michael Gove to talk of a major slump in standards after England came 16th in science, 23rd in reading and 27th in maths in 2011.

When reading showed an improvement in a different series of tests last year, ministers focused on a slump in science. The report for the Sutton Trust educational charity says: "The current Coalition Government has been seeking justification for the changes it wishes to make to the education system."