East Durham Schools and the Hypocrisy of Michael Gove

Henry Stewart's picture
As we await the release of the school-by-school 2013 GCSE data this week, it is interesting to see how the DfE and our Secretary of State use that data differently for schools they like and schools they don't.

Early last year Michael Gove stated of secondary schools in East Durham that "when you go into those schools, you can smell the sense of defeatism." The DfE confirmed this month, in response to my FOI request, that Gove had never visited a school in East Durham. The DfE suggested that Gove's views were based on hearsay, from staff in North Durham who had "shared their concerns".

(Even this defence appears to be a later justification. At the time he told MPs that he based his view on a single teacher who had told Andrew Adonis that his pupils should give up hope of getting a job. Apart from the question of generalising from one statement by one teacher, it turned out that this story dated from 10 years previously, from a school that had since closed and was in any case in Sunderland, not East Durham.)

What the data tells us

The DfE's response claims that Gove's view was based on the data for East Durham schools. "Just 8% of pupils achieved the English Baccalaureate in 2012, compared to 16% across England as a whole." Their response makes 5 statements about low English Baccalaureate results and none about GCSE results. This is curious. I have googled sponsored academies and the English Baccalaureate and can find no occasion on which Gove or any DfE spokesperson has sought to judge them by their ebacc results.

So what were the English Baccalaureate results of sponsored academies in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available? It turns out the average figure was 8%, exactly the same figure that, in the case of East Durham schools, was used to justify Gove's attack.

Ebacc achievement is typically lower in more deprived areas. I have written elsewhere about how students in sponsored academies are less likely, not more, to study Gove's favoured academies subjects - such as languages or humanities. This may be an issue to address but it is odd that only schools that Gove wishes to attack are held to account for this item of data.

Dramatic GCSE improvement in East Durham

So what about GCSE results, and the benchmark of the % of students achieving 5 GCSEs including English and Maths?

 5 GCSEs E & MIncrease 09-12
The Academy at Shotton Hall62%16%
Dene Community School of Technology49%19%
Easington Community Science College68%20%
St Bede's and and Byron College52%4%
Seaham School of Technology57%29%
Wellfield Community School51%15%
Average increase, 2009 - 2012 17%


Let's go back to Gove's statement in the Commons. He specifically listed Dene Community School of Technology, Seaham School of Technology, Easington Community Science College, Wellfield Community School and St Bede’s Catholic Comprehensive School as having "underperformed dramatically". Yet, despite being in areas with high levels of deprivation, none are below the floor target and five have shown dramatic improvement.

East Durham is not an education authority on its own, but part of the larger Durham area. However, if it was an authority on its own, these improvements would place it in the top two most improved areas in the country over this three year period - second only to Greenwich.

This GCSE improvement figure is the measure that Gove likes to judge his favoured schools on. On 30th October Michael Gove praised sponsored academies, stating that their GCSE benchmark results had increased by 12.1% over three years. (Hansard, col 953) Yet the improvement in the East Durham schools he so denigrates was far ahead at 17%. Indeed five of the six East Durham schools showed improvement well above the average for sponsored academies that Gove is so proud of.

The proportion of pupils qualifying for free school meals in these schools range from 25% to 49%. Easington Community Science College achieves its 68% GCSE achievement from a school population where 44% of pupils qualify for free school meals. This compares to a national average of schools of this level of deprivation (40% to 60% FSM) of just 52% getting 5 GCSEs including English and Maths. (And 49% for sponsored academies in this FSM range.)


So we have a Secretary of State who three times last year attacked and denigrated schools in East Durham. A more principled man, when challenged, might have accepted that the data did not back his claim and might have withdrawn his previous statement.

The DfE could have chosen to judge these schools on the same basis as they judge sponsored academies. If they had done that, they would have seen how well they were performing. Instead we have a Secretary of State and a Department with a clear agenda and, for whatever reason, the East Durham schools are not among those they favour. So they are judged by a completely different set of data. This is surely pure hypocrisy.

One of the ironies of this story is that there are areas in the North-East where results are well below those of similar schools elsewhere and are not improving at a fast rate. However the East Durham schools are not among them. If we had a Secretary of State that based his approach on the facts, then he would be praising these schools and encouraging other North-East schools to learn from them.

My challenge to the DfE and to Mr Gove: State which criteria you are judging secondary schools in England on, and use that criteria consistently - whether for schools that you favour or for those you don't.

Ofsted Ratings

The DfE also claimed in their response that half of East Durham's six secondaries are rated as "Inadequate" or "Requires Improvement" by Ofsted, compared to one third nationally.

The DfE's data is simply false here. In fact only two of the six fall into these categories, which represent one third - exactly the same as the national average. (It is true that one only became rated Good in June 2013. However it would presumably no more have smelt of defeatism in March than it did when Ofsted visited later in the year and rated it Good. Also Gove repeated his attack on East Durham schools in September.)


Michael Gove concerns for East Durham schools clearly has its limits. In December it became clear he had refused to provide £80 million of funding to enable a London Challenge-style programme in the North-East, the recommendation of the Andrew Adonis' report on dealing with the challenges in the North East.

Data Notes

The average ebacc achievement rate for academies and the GCSE results for East Durham schools are calculated from the 2012 GCSE data released by the DfE in January 2013.
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