Free schools are set to fly high, says Toby Young
Guest blogger Toby Young's been a best-selling author, a journalist and a film and TV producer. Now he's founded a free school. The passionate Tory who set up the West London Free School explains why he believes these educational establishments more successful than traditional comprehensives - and it's not covert selection.
I’m proud to say the West London Free School remained open yesterday with not a single member of staff going on strike. A majority of them are members of teaching unions and they’d face no repercussions if they did. They just decided not to.
The staff’s devotion to the pupils is down to their commitment to education. We’re doing all we can to reverse the declining standards that saw British schoolchildren sink from 4th to 16th in science between 2000 and 2009 in PISA's international league tables, 7th to 25th in reading and 8th to 28th in maths.
We believe the key to raising educational attainment – particularly that of the country’s poorest children – is to duplicate the practices of Britain’s independent schools, which PISA has ranked the best in the world.
At the West London Free School all the children study Latin. They watch the plays of Shakespeare and learn poetry by heart. They study politics and philosophy and learn about the Renaissance. They participate in after-school clubs and activities, taking on children from the local fee-paying schools in debating competitions and – more often than not – knocking them into a cocked hat.
We can achieve this because we have a strict code of conduct, which is rigorously enforced, and teach in classes of 24 or less. We focus on a core of academic disciplines – no vocational subjects, no technical subjects – with art, music, drama and sport thrown in. Our ambition is for all the children at the school to go to top universities, no matter how lowly their background.
Some critics have dismissed this philosophy as “elitist” and accused us of wanting to set up a fee-paying school at the taxpayers’ expense. But we will never dismantle our class system if we allow children from poor backgrounds to waste their time at school watching soap operas and playing video games while rich children are introduced to the best that has been thought and said. That’s not social justice. It’s social apartheid.
This old-fashioned approach has struck a chord with parents. Over 500 children applied for our first 120 places and over 1,000 have applied for our next 120. They’re not all white and middle class, either. Over a third of our pupils are BME and one in four are on free school meals.
A common criticism is that free schools divert money from existing schools, some of which are in urgent need of repair. In fact the basic need for more school places is so acute, thanks to our growing population, that if the government weren’t allocating capital funds to free schools it would be spending far more on creating new schools by more conventional methods. Under the last government, the average cost of setting up a new secondary school was £28 million. A typical free school costs about a third of that, partly because they’re set up in existing buildings and the donkey work is done by unpaid volunteers like me. The truth is that without free schools there’d be even less money to spend on leaking roofs.
Not everyone will be convinced by these arguments. Some people worry that free schools won’t be subject to the same constraints that local authority-run schools are and if they get better results, it will only be because they haven’t taken their fair share of hard-to-place children and children with Special Educational Needs.
I hear these arguments whenever I go to a dinner party. I assure parents that free schools are subject to exactly the same admissions regulations as other schools, but it makes no difference.
It probably doesn’t help that I’m an out-of-the-closet Tory. But, for what it’s worth, I’m not typical of the people involved in the free school movement, most of whom vote Labour or Lib Dem. That’s true of the parents and teachers behind the West London Free School, believe it or not.
They’ve been shocked by the vitriol directed at them by friends and colleagues. They’re doing what their parties have urged them to do – becoming community activists, setting up charities, improving public services. When they hear the teaching unions dismiss them as "elitists", only setting up schools because they're too snobbish to send their children to the local community schools, they're horrified. I've yet to meet a free school proposer who doesn't want their school to be socially inclusive.
Most of us haven't embarked on these projects because we've rejected the comprehensive ideal, but because we believe in it. During the 1964 general election campaign, when Labour wanted to radically reform state education, Harold Wilson described comprehensives as "grammar schools for all". That's exactly what many free schoolers want their schools to be.
I'd encourage anyone who cares about the quality of our public education to follow in my footsteps. I’ve written an international bestseller, performed in a one-man show in the West End and co-produced a Hollywood movie, but nothing I’ve ever done has come close to the pride I felt when the West London Free School opened. Setting up a taxpayer-funded school is a ghastly, frustrating, time-consuming, mind-boggling business, but it’s the best thing you’ll ever do.
Photo by Eleanor Bentall