Right to reply: in defence of academies

Academies are transforming education in the most deprived communities.

It's a shame that Mehdi Hasan didn't come to my department to check the figures he used in his academies article (playground tactics?). He is entitled to his opinion but we could have helped him make his piece factually correct.

For a start his description of academy funding is incorrect. Per-pupil funding for academies is based on exactly the same formula as other local schools. The difference is that all the money intended for the schools goes straight to it rather than a percentage - which varies enormously - being held back by the local authority. They can then use that money to buy services from the local authority or from another provider if that offers better value for money.

He then misrepresented the situation in Haringey. I think we need to be honest about standards at Downhills School. Their results have been below the national floor standards for four out of the last five years. The school had a notice to improve from Ofsted and was then placed in special measures after their last inspection. An Ofsted inspection carried out last month found it was "failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education and the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement".

How has Hasan, who believes in social justice, found himself on the side of people defending failure for the most deprived communities?

He is also wrong with regards to teachers' pay and exam results. Contrary to what he says, teachers pay is not lower in academies. Big academy chains are doing incredible work to provide extra training and professional development to their staff. If he had spoken to academies and their teachers, he would have heard a different story.

He has used flimsy data to attack academy results. Based on the latest data available, the free school meal pupils attending academies are improving faster than similar pupils in all other schools. This bears repeating - children from the poorest families are doing better in academies. Isn't that a cause for celebration? It is also a fact that as academies become more established they move to more academic subjects. And, of course, many students have already taken their GCSE options before their schools become an academy, so the longer term trend presents a more complete picture.

He quotes figures supposedly showing a supposed lack of public support for academies as an abstract concept. But in the real world, pupils and their parents are voting with their feet.

At Mossbourne Academy, whose predecessor was described as the "worst school in Britain" a total of 1,587 children have applied for 200 places this year.

Academies run by Ark have seen a huge rise in applications, with six children applying for each place at Ark Academy in Wembley. The Harris Academies chain had four applications for every place across all of their schools - schools which had been undersubscribed before becoming academies. Parents want their children to attend academies.

Of course, no anti-academy article would be complete without some choice use of exclusion data. The most recent DfE figures, published last month, comparing academies against a control group other schools with very similar pupils showed just 0.25 per cent difference in their exclusion rates - a quarter of one percent. 29 of the academies had no exclusions, compared to 32 of the comparison group. I struggle to see the scandal here. The National Audit Office and PWC both found no evidence that academy admissions and exclusions were having a negative impact on neighbouring schools; in fact the NAO said that academies were the schools most likely to be serving their local communities.

Last year researchers at the LSE found that academies improve faster than comparator schools even when controlling for pupil intake and the use of GCSE 'equivalent' qualifications. They also said that academies helped raise standards in local schools. Perhaps that's why, again contrary to Mehdi's claims, parents are queuing up to send their children to academies.

Jonathan Hill is the under-secretary of state for schools.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.