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Chris Skidmore MP: You want evidence that Gove's policies are working, StephenTwigg? Here's some.

Chris Skidmore is a member of the Education Select Committee and MP for Kingswood. Follow Chris on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-13 at 16.46.30Labour 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 outstanding.

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. 


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