Toby Young, Free Schools and the Big Society

I watched the ‘Starting your own school’ documentary last week. I watched with trepidation as I guessed it would annoy me. In fact the first sentence was quite positive – Toby was saying he was a failure. So far so good, nothing to disagree violently with there. That was the best bit though.

There seemed to be a huge discrepancy between what Toby and his friends were saying (we are inclusive, we want to encourage people from different backgrounds to send their children to our school, we are not just a bunch of middle class people creating our own elite institution) and what seemed likely to happen from looking at and listening to Toby and his friends.

The committee of people setting up Toby’s school are all middle class professionals. There don’t seem to be any representatives of the disadvantaged people they say they want to include, on the committee. But that is not surprising; who has the time, money and contacts to set up a school? This is one of the problems with the whole Big Society idea; you need to involve all sections of the community in order to have a hope in hell of succeeding with it. But disadvantaged people don’t have the requisite skills. And they are busy getting through their day to day existence on an ever diminishing amount of money. Other people may have plenty of knowledge, experience and motivation but are busy using it to earn a crust and don’t have time.

Last week I attended my son’s school PTA Annual General Meeting where the previous committee were practically on their knees begging the eight people that attended to take on a position of responsibility. They filled some of the roles but not all so there is an emergency meeting next week. People didn’t want to get involved in running the organisation for various reasons; some lacked confidence, others (like me) lacked time.

The curriculum that Toby and his friends want in their school involves lots of ‘classical education’ including compulsory Latin for years 7 to 9. This does not seem likely to appeal to working class children, or most other teenagers to be honest. How does it fit in with their lives, their experiences, their hopes and plans for the future? The students he interviews said as much in the documentary. Gove talks about freeing schools from the constraints of the curriculum by allowing Heads freedom. But then the curriculum (as in the case of Toby’s school) is surely more likely to be narrowed and cease to provide the broad and balanced education that most people think is a good basis for adult life, because it will have to fit the particular agenda of a small group of people who are setting up the school.

There were clips of Toby’s fellow committee members canvassing parents in the deprived local estate which was apparently ‘evidence’ of how they wanted these families to come to the new school. I do wonder how much other canvassing, involving, inviting went on off camera.

I am not that bothered about what Toby and his friends want their children to learn about. If they pay for it themselves, that is. The huge problem I have with Free Schools and Academies is that they have already taken money out of the education budget destined for other schools (harnessing technology grant) and will take more in the future. This is not fair and does not promote equality. We need funding for support for children with Special Educational Needs, English as an Additional Language, Educational Welfare, Looked after Children, Travellers and Early Years education; this will all be squeezed by a drain of finances going to these new schools.

Since the programme was broadcast, this was published.

Making children learn Latin for 3 years isn’t indoctrination then? And school is not the place for ethnic/social mixing, this should be left to the church? This would leave children of atheists racially segregated for a start.

And today, this appeared from poor Toby: ‘Lefties go mental while watching my school documentary’. I wonder how you say that in Latin? It might sound a bit more intellectual.

Toby asks: “Why do Free Schools bring out such violent reactions in people?” Because many people think it is wrong to bleed money from the state education system to provide niche schools in areas which do not necessarily have a shortage of places, for well-connected people whose children would do perfectly well at a ‘normal’ state school, that’s why.

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8 Responses to Toby Young, Free Schools and the Big Society

  1. ThetisMercurio says:

    what a great post!

    I like the idea of introducing the classics to children within history, including teaching the history of ideas; in fact they teach the children about the Romans and Greeks in my child’s state primary and my son is studying philosophy in his state secondary – it doesn’t need to be exclusive to a private education. There’s no reason for it to be relevant only to a few. But I suspect ‘classics’ has a particular veneer for our friends, it is faux public school, it is Brideshead, the ‘hoi polloi’ will know they’re not welcome. And I give Toby a year before he’s fallen out with the rest of the parents and is reconsidering his options.

    Ultimately though your last point is the most important: resources should be concentrated on the schools most of our children go to, so that the children themselves have as much choice as teachers and facilities can offer. We should be concentrating on finding ways to support this: it isn’t beyond the cleverest minds as long as ideology doesn’t get in the way, and IT budgets are not cut. Gove is running in the wrong direction as fast as his legs can carry him (he should do a marathon: would you like to train him? Go on…)

  2. Alexander Strain says:

    Toby is right! We should expose our children to the classics. I am a senior level English teacher in Canada. Our school’s bookroom is filled with unread classics. The simple truth is that our senior year students are not up to it when it comes to understanding the ideas and issues raised by books like 1984, Brave New World, or Lord of the Flies.
    Our curriculum has been dummed-down because of such fatuous nonsense as “success for all” and “no child left behind”. In order to have success for all and no child left behind, the curriculum has been diluted to such an extent that students in our grade eleven classes are far less well-educated than the ninth grade students of twenty years ago. It’s not “success” for all, it’s mediocrity for all.
    Add to that the fact that disruptive behaviour is not only tolerated, but excused and “understood” , and you can see why any attempt to create a better environment in which children can learn gets my support.
    Bravo Toby!

    • Miriam Gopaul says:

      Hello, Alexander. I think you have misunderstood the use of the term ‘Classics’ in this context. We are not talking about classic literature such as the books you mentioned, which I’m sure most people would agree have a place in modern education, if only to highlight the connections between today and the past. Good teachers will be able to engage most pupils in the subjects and ideas these books bring up. It is referring to the teaching of Latin and related subjects. This is something that anyone without and interest in languages would find difficult to engage with, and would be very difficult for their parents to help with or understand as they have no experience of it themselves. Your suggestion that pupils should be disciplined without any need to understand the reasons for their behaviour shows a great lack of empathy which echoes Toby’s in the programme. Of course strong discipline should exist in schools, but it is the act of learning self-discipline that makes for promising adults. This can be taught by engaging with individuals so that they feel they have the opportunity to improve their own behaviour and prospects. Strict discipline without empathy just breeds resentment, stifles the imagination and teaches children to be un-empathetic themselves.

  3. Matthew says:

    Missed Toby’s programme, bounced around the internet reading up on it and ended up here. Just wanted to say that this is a very calm, compassionate and well thought out post. Heartening to read. My fondness for Brighton has just been extended.

  4. mark wright says:

    just watching Toby’s program, my opinoin of this is that Toby is a dissillusioned comprehencive middle class failiure. as shown he doesnt really care about this school he is proposing he is setting up a school to accomodate his own children. using tax payers money to bing up his children in the way he has total control.
    the out of date and tottally irrelivent ciriculum makes me laugh to learn latin as a tool to base your expansion of futher subjects makes me laugh when he has never studied it himself . can never think this guy could ever get away with earning money while trying to create this farce.

  5. Aggie Roberts says:

    Just watched Toby’s program and although I am very happy that his school has been successfully selected, I could not help but feel that my children (who are of mixed-heritage) would be very fortunate to get into his school. I was disappointed (but not surprised) that Toby and his friends left quite late in the day to start canvassing to parents from deprived local areas as well as parents from ethnic minorities. I have little confidence such canvassing has continued!

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