The free schools revolution

All children are entitled to a classical liberal education, no matter what the Left might say

Toby Young talks with pupils at the West London Free School
Toby Young
On 11 October 2012 12:18

When I first proposed setting up a free school in 2009 I had no idea I’d encounter such rabid opposition. I’d carved out a career for myself as a professional irritant and was reasonably successful at it – I wrote a memoir called How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. But it wasn’t until I decided to do something philanthropic – something genuinely public-spirited – that I became really, really hated.

I got my first taste of this on Newsnight in the autumn of 2009. I presented a short film about my efforts to set up England’s first free school and afterwards there was a live studio discussion in which I was pitted against Fiona Millar, Alistair Campbell’s partner and a self-styled “champion” of state education. By the end of the programme I felt like I’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson.

Almost the last thing she said to Jeremy Paxman as I lay bleeding on the canvas was that she didn’t know why we were bothering to discuss “Toby’s school” because I was clearly never going to get anywhere. It was an article of faith with Fiona and her Left-wing colleagues that groups of unpaid volunteers – rank amateurs like me – simply weren’t capable of setting up taxpayer-funded schools. In her mind, that was the glaring flaw in the free schools policy.

I was tempted to remind Fiona of this remark two years later when Boris Johnson stood in front of a packed assembly hall in Hammersmith and declared the West London Free School open.

But it wasn’t just Fiona I was up against. The teaching unions were united in their opposition to free schools, as they have been to almost every educational reform since the Second World War. Hardly surprising when you consider that free schools aren’t subject to the pay and conditions documents drawn up by the teaching unions and they’re allowed to employ staff that haven’t been through the teacher training college mill. As far as the unions are concerned, granting taxpayer-funded schools such extraordinary latitude is a direct assault on the professional status of teachers. 

For that reason, they maintained, no teachers would want to work at the West London Free School. They had too much self-respect.

In fact, over 500 teachers applied for our first six full-time positions and, in addition, more than 120 applied for the job of headteacher. To put this in perspective, the average community school that advertises for a new headteacher gets about half-a-dozen applicants. We ended up appointing a man called Thomas Packer who, in addition to having two headships under his belt, was a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve.

We were also told that parents wouldn’t want to send their children to our school. I lost count of the number of times I heard the following argument: If your child burst his appendix you wouldn’t send him to a hospital run by patients. So why entrust your child’s education to a school run by parents?

A total red herring since the West London Free School is no more run by parents than the neighbouring community schools are. Yes, some of the people on my steering committee were parents and some of them have gone on to become governors of the school, but the school is run by Mr Packer and his deputy.

In any event, the fact that our school wasn’t a bog standard comprehensive didn’t end up putting parents off. Funny that. Over 1,000 children applied for our second batch of 120 places this year, making us the most over-subscribed secondary in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

Okay, said our critics. Maybe your school’s popular. But they’re all middle class children, aren’t they? The phrase people like Fiona Millar use in this context is “self-selecting”, by which they mean that the parents who plump for our school have made a conscious decision to apply.

“Self-selecting”, it turns out, is another word for “choice”, which the Left-wing critics of free schools think is a truly terrible thing. Much better that the state should dictate where parents send their children to school.

But this, too, turned out to be wrong. The distinguishing characteristics of the West London Free School are small class sizes, strong discipline, and an academic curriculum but – weirdly – that doesn’t just attract the well-to-do. It appeals to all parents, across the board. The Left may imagine that if you don’t teach Citizenship and Media Studies you’re only going to attract an educated elite, but it turns out that including Latin on the curriculum doesn’t actually put off low income families.

Hard as it may be for the Fiona Millars of this world to understand, working class parents are just as passionate about securing the best possible opportunities for their children as middle class parents.

Of our first 120 pupils, between 30 and 40 percent were black, Asian or minority ethnic and 23.5 percent were on free school meals. In our second cohort, the one we’ve just admitted, 28 percent are on free school meals. That’s the borough average for state secondary schools in Hammersmith and Fulham. The teaching unions warned us that free schools would increase social segregation, but ours hasn’t. On the contrary, it’s a genuine comprehensive.

The final objection to the West London Free School is that it’s not suitable for all children. We describe ourselves as a grammar school for all, but our use of the word “grammar” is like a red rag to Left-wing defenders of comprehensive education. They believe that expecting all children to pass exams in six academic subjects, including a foreign language – which is what Michael Gove means by the EBacc – is setting up the majority for failure. There must be “vocational pathways” – code for GCSE equivalents, such as a BTEC in Personal Effectiveness, which includes a unit on how to claim the dole.

Well, once again, our experience has proved the nay-sayers wrong. There are children of all abilities at the West London Free School and none of them have struggled with Latin, which is mandatory for the first three years. Incredibly, they all manage to cope with studying three separate sciences and learning the rudiments of English grammar.

Even classic literature isn’t beyond them. Last Christmas I took the entire school to see Simon Callow performing a verbatim reading of A Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre in the West End and they say there completely spellbound. Turns out Charles Dickens isn’t too “challenging” for ordinary children. Who knew?

The fact is, all children are entitled to a classical liberal education, regardless of background or ability. The real elitists are not those that want to broaden choice and extend opportunity by setting up free schools. It’s those die-hard defenders of the status quo on the Left who think the best that’s been thought and written is just for public school toffs.

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