Free for all - or is it?

11th December 2009 at 00:00

Newsnight: Toby Young's battle to set up a new school

BBC Two, 10.30pm, December 8 By Adi Bloom

If only Toby Young had whiskers - and a top hat.

Ostensibly, his Newsnight film was about his efforts, along with 250 west London parents, to set up their own school. In fact, it was a 20-minute reminder that the age of the Victorian philanthropist-evangelist is not yet over.

Mr Young, an Oxford contemporary of Tory leader David Cameron and author of the bestselling How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, wants to establish a "comprehensive grammar" so that his four children do not have to go to the local comp.

And that was when his inner Victorian emerged. At a local housing estate, he pronounced that his school would be a failure unless children from there came to his school, achieved good grades and went on to university.

He interviewed former Labour spin doctor Peter Hyman, now a history teacher at a local school. "The reason grammars often are successful," Mr Hyman said, "is that a lot of people you might consider undesirable are weeded out." What if the 20 toughest boys in the neighbourhood enrolled at Young's school?

"We'd be delighted,"he responded. "Provided they were willing to learn." Aha. The deserving poor. The rest, of course, should consider themselves lucky to be in a comprehensive rather than a workhouse.

But surely at a genuine comprehensive, Mr Hyman countered, everyone is welcome? "And some don't want to learn."

No, Mr Young said. He would take children from the local estates and instil in them the ambition to succeed.

And that sense of self-congratulatory philanthropy was, ultimately, what lost Mr Young friends and alienated viewers.

Middle-class parents opting out of the state system is hardly new. But couching it in terms of generous do-goodery is just dishonest.

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