The dark side of the whiteboard - Festive sneer is all I can muster

17th December 2010 at 00:00

Ho, ho, ho. Fill your boots, you festive fun-seekers because that is as jolly as this is going to get. It is an icy downhill slither from here. I had planned on writing a piece crackling with yuletide cheer: the editorial equivalent of Victoria Wood, Bruce Willis and Wallace and Gromit competing in Dine Hard 4: the mince pie cook-off. But a friend suggested I take a peek at the West London Free School website, and my spirits have fallen faster than the needles off a Christmas tree.

Don't get me wrong. My problem isn't with free schools per se, but with the sort of people who set them up. Just as mums are unaccountably attracted to Iceland, priggish self-aggrandising journalists seem attracted to free schools. From what I can gather, Toby Young's prime motivation in founding the WLFS stems from the fact that he wished he had a Latin O-level. In which case, paying for a handful of evening classes might have been a more prudent use of the public purse than buying his own school.

Still, no point in crying over spilt educational budgets. A more pressing concern is the lack of professionalism in the way the school conducts itself. The WLFS has recently recruited for the post of headteacher. Now usually when you apply for a job, you expect a certain degree of confidentiality among those dealing with your application. You certainly wouldn't anticipate having your shortcomings splurged all over the national press. But Mr Young has been so incensed by the spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in the applicants' CVs that he has spewed his contempt for the candidates all over his blog. More alarming still is the fact that the WLFS website promotes Mr Young's sometimes virulent "toadmeister" tweets - one of which was a scathing personal attack on the journalist Fiona Millar. Call me an old softie, but shouldn't we be using our websites to celebrate sixth-form pilgrimages to Lourdes, not as galleries for public crucifixions? If this reflects the WLFS's ethos, then God help the poor pupils who end up there.

You can't deny that Mr Young has every right to set up a new school. The "innovation, diversity and flexibility" demanded by the Government's free schools policy is so obviously met by the WLFS's narrow classical curriculum, middle-class "croneydom" and prescriptive approach to pedagogy. In one televised debate, Mr Young demanded to know why the middle classes shouldn't have the right to set up their own independent state schools. Why stop there, Toby? How about your own restaurants, buses and neighbourhoods? It worked so very cosily in South Africa.

While people like Mr Young are using Government funds to excavate the social divide, others seem worryingly unaware that such a gap exists. Lord Young, no relation to Toby, exposed his lack of knowledge of the hardships faced by the poor when he remarked that we had never had it so good.

When the WLFS adopted its Latin motto, sapere aude, it might as well have surrounded itself with barbed wire and water cannons. To borrow a line from The Clash's White Riot: "all the power's in the hands of people rich enough to buy it". Merry Christmas, war is over? I think a new one's just begun.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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