Sorry Toby But The Data Backs Suzanne

Henry Stewart's picture
On Thursday Suzanne Moore's article "Michael Gove is destroying our school system" appeared in the Guardian's G2 section. Though reflecting a rather widely held view, this was savaged by Toby Young in the Telegraph under the title "Suzanne Moore's attack on Michael Gove is a hysterical, ill-informed rant." At Local Schools Network we’ve been checking educational data for a while and Toby's use of facts seems dubious and misleading. Let's take his claims one-by-one:

Toby: In fact, there's plenty of evidence to support Gove's policies. Here's evidence that standards fell during Labour's 13 years in office.

Toby's link is to the Wikipedia entry on PISA, the international comparison of performance of 15 year olds. Michael Gove often uses the PISA rankings, and the UK's apparent fall from 2000 to 2009, to justify his policies. However the 2000 figures for the UK were flawed:  Andrew Dilmot, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has criticised the DfE for its misleading use of this data. At the same time TIMMS (Trends in Maths and Science Survey) and PIRLS Progress in International reading Literacy Survey) have shown more positive results and the recent Pearson report The Learning Curve found that the UK was in the top two in Europe for overall educational performance.

Toby: Here's evidence that free schools have raised standards in Sweden.

The international evidence for similar approaches is in fact not strong. Even the 2007 paper that Toby links to, warned against applying the findings to other countries. Christopher Cook, in the Financial Times, looked at the data and argued it was a "pretty meagre return on such a massive disruption in the system." Sweden showed a significant fall in the PISA tables that Toby refers to and many are now worried about the increased social segregation that Swedish free schools have caused.

In the United States the evidence for Charter Schools is very patchy. The CREDO review of charter schools across 40 states found that 17% were significantly better than average, 46% were around the average and 37% were significantly below average. This week a report by Stanford University found that charter status had little impact, finding that schools that start 'bad' stay 'bad'. Indeed Greg Richmond, who leads the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, admitted that "in the charter school space, too often there's a willingness to give failing charter schools more time,"

Toby: Here's evidence that increasing school choice has raised standards in England.

Toby uses research by Professor Stephen Machin and James Vernoit from the LSE. There are issues with their approach but their report found some evidence for strong performance in the early academies. However Stephen Machin made clear that it is "hard to justify" the use of his research by the government for its very different academies. Indeed he called it a "step too far".

Toby: Here's evidence that the academies programme is raising standards in England.

The claim, made by the Department for Education (DfE) 10 days ago, is that the results in the key GCSE benchmark rose by 3.1% for sponsored academies and only 0.6% for maintained schools. However this difference disappears when you compare the performance of similar schools. The independent fact checker Full Fact compared the claims, finding that the DfE claim did not show the full picture, and validating my analysis. No mention was made, by Toby or the DfE, of converter academies (on which the government spent the best part of £1 billion) - as on average their results actually fell after conversion.

Toby: It's a myth put about by Labour luvvies that the Ebacc and/or the EBC (they always confuse them, too) will mean schoolchildren are discouraged from studying Art, Music, Drama and Design Technology. At present, the majority of English primary and secondary schools in the state sector include all those subjects in their core curricula in KS1 (5-7), KS2 (7-11) and KS3 (11-14) and there's no evidence that's about to change. In KS4 (14-16), there's no reason why the majority of pupils shouldn't continue to study for qualifications in "creative" subjects while at the same time studying the Ebacc/EBC subjects which, in any event, won't be compulsory. Gove isn't proposing to abolish GCSEs in Art, Music, Drama and Design Technology. This is a complete red herring.

It is true that a lot of people get confused between the current ebacc and the future EBC. But there is certainly evidence of change for age 14-16s. The DfE report on the effect of the Ebacc so far found that 247 schools have withdrawn Drama as a GCSE, 183 schools have withdrawn Art, and 151 schools have withdrawn Design Technology. It is a matter of simple maths. The current ebacc is effectively seven GCSEs (Maths, English, English Lit, 2 Science, a humanity and a language). Many students only take eight GCSEs altogether and most only take nine. So, if you take all the ebacc subjects, you only have one or two choices left. The ebacc means less arts options. For concerns on the EBC, read Fiona Millar here.

Toby: Yes, not all, but on average results at sponsored academies are improving five times faster than results at maintained schools. Where's the glitch?

This is the same claim as above, refuted by Full Fact. The data reveals that previously poorly performing schools did grow fast, but there was little difference between academies (7.8% growth) and maintained schools (7.7% growth).

Toby: I suggest she visit Mossbourne Community Academy just down the road from where she lives in Islington. The percentage of children on free school meals at Mossbourne is 50.7 per cent and yet 89 per cent got five good GCSEs last year, making it one of the best-performing state schools in the country.

Mossbourne is an outstanding school, which gets exceptional results. However to use this to claim all academies will be amazing is nonsense. It is like stating "David Beckham is from Chingford. David Beckham is an outstanding footballer. Therefore all footballers from Chingford must be outstanding." If Mossbourne's success was due to it being an academy, then you would expect to see many academies doing as well. My analysis last year showed that the other best-performing schools were not academies.

Toby claims that at nearby Stoke Newington School only 25.6% of students are on Free School Meals. This is sloppy research. A simple look at the recent DfE data on schools (available here) reveals the true figure to be 42%.* 

(Added Note: To be fair to Toby, the key DfE measure of free school meals changed this year, from the % of students currently eligible for FSM to the % of students whose families had been eligible in last six years. However he used the new, higher, figure for Mossbourne and the old, lower, figure for Stoke Newington to create a false comparison.)

Toby: "Emotional intelligence" is balls. See here for chapter and verse.

Wikipedia again, Toby? I think the Sutton Trust research is more reliable on educational impact. They said "SEAL interventions have an identifiable and significant impact on attitudes to learning, social relationships in school, and attainment itself." (SEAL stands for Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning.)

Toby: It's one of the reasons the percentage of state school students at Oxbridge has actually declined since the decimation of England's grammar schools in the 60s and 70s.

Toby produces no evidence for what seems to be an urban myth. The House of Common Library analysed this question in a paper titled "Oxbridge Elitism", published in June 2009. It found that, in 1961, 34% of students at Oxford and 27% of those at Cambridge were from state backgrounds. Last year, the Telegraph reported that 55% of admissions at Oxford and 66% at Cambridge were now from state schools.

Toby: This is one of the most common criticisms of Gove's reforms – that by encouraging schools to focus on knowledge rather than skills, prioritising academic subjects and making public exams at 16 and 18 more difficult he will create a system that's only fit for the 19th century. (See Moore's dismissive reference to "rote learning" above.) In fact, these are precisely the characteristics of the state education systems in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.

Well, Toby, you need to take a look at the recent Pearson report that described how these countries are moving away from Gove's approach. "No education system can remain static,” writes Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. “Technology is transforming our lives. The skills needed in the future will be very different from those needed today.” South Korean schools are now being encouraged to develop “creativity, character and collaboration”. And Chinese leaders believe their schools need to produce more “creative talent”.

Is Gove Destroying our School System?

Our Education Secretary has very strong beliefs about what is needed in education but, like those of Toby Young, these seem only rarely to be evidence-based. The highly respected Sutton Trust has analysed what works and Ian Gilbert compared their conclusions to the approach of Gove and his colleagues. I summarised Ian's excellent article with these tweets earlier this week:

  • Setting? Goverment claims they know it works. Sutton Trust: negative effect for most students

  • Gove: Blazer & tie encourages good behaviour. Sutton Trust: no evidence of improvement:

  • Gove: Performance pay is vital. Sutton trust: It would not appear to be a good investment:

  • Gove: Longer school day, shorter holidays. Sutton Trust: Better to use existing time effectivley

  • Government: SEAL "is ghastly" Sutton trust: SEAL interventions: an identifiable and significant impact

  • Government: Phonics is best method for reading. Sutton Trust: Above Yr 5, phonics produce less or no impact

  • Gove: Parents prefer tradition, children sitting in rows. Sutton: impact of collaborative learning is consistently positive

  • Gove: End 1-1 tuition. Sutton: 1-1 tuition can enable learners to catch up with their peers

  • Government: Sure start is waste of money. Sutton: pre-school intervention has above average impact

This comparison appears to back up Suzanne's claim. It seems that the common perception that Michael Gove is seeking to return education to the system that worked for him 40 years ago, rather than what the evidence calls for, is correct.

The National Audit Office reported that the DfE had overspent by £1 billion on its academy conversion programme. There is little evidence that this has had any impact on school standards, with GCSE results for converter academies in 2012 actually falling. The tragedy is that there is clear evidence of what does work, such as the Sutton Trust analysis, and what has improved our schools. The most notable example of the latter was the London Challenge, which transformed education in the capital, where 85% of schools are now classified by Ofsted as Good or Outstanding. It is time to learn from what works.


Note: A big thanks to my Local Schools Network colleague Janet Downs, who helped with the data sources and the interpretation.

* Early version of this gave figure of 46% for FSM at Stoke Newington. This is actually figure for 'disadvantaged' students, figure should be 42% as above.

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