Chris Skidmore is a member of the Education Select Committee and MP for Kingswood. Follow Chris on Twitter.
Labour are often criticised for not having much
in the way of an education policy. Afraid of getting in trouble with the
reform-resistant teachers unions, they have largely limited their output to
bleated criticisms of Michael Gove. If Stephen Twigg’s letter last week to the
Times Educational Supplement, in which he describes Gove as a ‘shark in a
tornado’, is anything to go by, he’s been spending some of that time, which others in
his position have spent building a substantive vision for education, watching
Sharknado, the self-explanatory disaster movie which has been an unlikely hit
in the US.
Yet while the revelation about Twigg’s
unusual taste in films has dominated what little attention his letter has
received, his charge that reforms have been a triumph of dogma over evidence has
gone largely unaddressed. It’s an often-made accusation, much loved by the NUT,
and it’s far from the first time it’s been made by Twigg. Had he been paying
closer attention though he’d have noticed that the publication last week of Ofsted’s
first inspections of free schools offered yet more evidence that the programme
is proving a resounding success.
Of the free schools inspected under Ofsted’s
new, tougher framework 75 per cent were rated good or outstanding, a sizeable ten percentage points more than the equivalent figure for Local Authority
maintained schools. No wonder, then, that parents have been flocking to these
schools, with nine in ten of those opened so far being oversubscribed.
With the free schools ranked outstanding
including the Canary Wharf College in Tower Hamlets and the All Saints Junior
School, this success can’t be explained away with spurious claims that these are
schools for the wealthy, the "vanity projects" of "yummy-mummies" that the Labour MP Tristram Hunt
predicted. In fact, the opposite is true. The 24 schools inspected were
primarily concentrated in deprived areas, with half residing in the most
deprived 30 per cent of communities. These schools are bringing high standards
to areas where traditionally pupils have been let down.
It isn’t just free schools which come out well
from the latest round of inspections, either. The gap between local authority
maintained schools and convertor academies is even more impressive, with a 24
percentage point difference in the proportion of schools rated good or
These successes are confirmed in the results
academies and free schools have been achieving. In 2011/12 the percentage of
academy and free school students achieving 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and
English was 5.1 percentage points higher than for students of Local Authority
maintained mainstream schools. Similarly pupils at academies and free schools
were 5.9 percentage points more likely to achieve the English Baccalaureate of
core academic subjects.
With so much evidence of success it is all the
more staggering that Mr Twigg continues to accuse Gove of ignoring reality,
whilst himself insisting that academies and free schools don’t work. When it
comes to ignoring evidence Mr Twigg is more guilty than most.
Of course the letter wasn’t wrong about
everything. As it said, we do need evidence based policy, high quality
teaching, and freedoms that raise standards. It’s just astonishing that, in
spite of these fine aims, Stephen Twigg has found himself defending a model
against which more and more evidence is piling up. Perhaps if he paid a little
more attention to the facts, even if this meant a little less time for shark
films, he’d realise just how important free schools and academies are to the communities
in which they’re based. He’d see that they’re using their freedoms to innovate
and raise standards in some of the most deprived communities in the country.
Perhaps then he’d change his tune.