The claim
“I have attempted to correct [Michael Gove] on his statistical failings, but he keeps refusing to listen. What he does in his comparisons is to look only at the children on free school meals who go to schools.”
Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, House of Commons, 8 March 2010

The analysis
A statistical spat in parliament yesterday between Schools Secretary Ed Balls and his shadow, Michael Gove, sounded rather like one we FactChecked earlier.

“The Secretary of State will be aware that, in the last year for which we have figures, of the 80,000 children who were eligible for free school meals – the very poorest – only 45 got to Oxford or Cambridge,” said Gove.

Balls disagreed, however. “I have attempted to correct the hon. Gentleman on his statistical failings, but he keeps refusing to listen,” he said. “What he does in his comparisons is to look only at the children on free school meals who go to schools. He repeatedly ignores the performance of young people on free school meals who go to further education colleges.”

The quotes were reported in newspapers including The Independent and The Times.

But as regular FactCheck readers will know, Gove is on the money. The figures, taken from a parliamentary question, looked at the number of 15-year-olds in England who were eligible for free school meals, then followed up which university they were at at the age of 19.

So why did Balls take him to task? A Labour spokesperon admitted today that Balls had inadvertantly made the same mistake schools minister Vernon Coaker did last month, thinking that Gove’s figures referred only to pupils in schools.

Why the confusion? There are some other stats, which the Tories are fairly fond of quoting and which Balls brought up later in yesterday’s debate, on the number of pupils on free school meals who got three As at A-level (189, if you’re wondering).

And as this parliamentary answer shows these figures relate only to pupils who did their A-levels in schools, because free school meals data is not collected for the 80,000-odd pupils doing the exams in the FE sector.

So as a measure of poor pupils getting the top grades, this one is probably is an underestimate. Still, this wasn’t the stat that Gove invoked yesterday. On the number of free school meals pupils going to Oxford, we fail Balls’s rebuttal rather than Gove’s claim.

– We tweeted about this yesterday; follow @factcheck on Twitter for more real-time updates.

UPDATE: Michael Gove and Ed Balls exchanged letters after the parliamentary exchanges; Gove asked Balls to correct the record about free school meals at Oxbridge.

“I did not claim in the House yesterday that these particular figures about Oxbridge entry were incorrect, but instead that I was not able to confirm their accuracy,” Balls replied to Gove (read the full letter here). He continued:

“What I did say in the House was that you have repeatedly quoted statistics which include only those young people eligible for free school meals who study A-levels at school and exclude thousands of young people studying in sixth form or further education colleges…

“You have also previously quoted incorrect figures about the achievements of free school meal eligible pupils at GCSE. Despite letters from the DCSF’s chief statistician and the schools minister, you have continued to claim that in those schools where over half of pupils are eligible for free school meals only 13 per cent achieve five GCSEs at A*-C grade including English and maths.”

In 2008, the figure was in fact 33 per cent.

However, Balls said he had been back to check the figures Gove quoted on free school meals and Oxbridge and could confirm that they were, “on this occasion, correct”.

FactCheck will be watching out for other free school meals claims, correct or otherwise, in the coming months. Though maybe politicians from both sides will now keep their figures squeaky clean…

– The row over figures was also discussed on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.