Head at eye of Toby Young storm breaks silence

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Acton High leader speaks out after year of sniping from free-school campaigner

For more than a year Mandy Golding has watched her school being accused in the national media of indoctrinating pupils, failing to challenge them academically and offering the wrong curriculum.

In fact it was rated "good" by Ofsted last year and, despite a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils, enjoys respectable, rapidly improving GCSE results.

But Acton High is also Toby Young's local secondary. And as the journalist and author has fought his high-profile campaign to open the first free school, his criticism of his local comprehensive has dragged it into the media glare.

The result: a steady flow of negative publicity, despite the fact that Mr Young has never actually visited the school.

In the first of a long series of public attacks, last summer he wrote an article in a national Sunday newspaper saying he feared Acton High would let his children down.

Last month on a prime-time national terrestrial TV programme which filmed the exterior of the school, he said he disliked its ethos and curriculum because it was required to "indoctrinate children".

This week, the school's head Ms Golding finally decided to break a long silence with a TES interview. She said her intention was not to attack Mr Young, merely to defend her school and trumpet its success.

"It feels like the right time to be saying that something very exciting is happening here and this is a way of getting recognition," she said.

Acton High's once poor local reputation was five years out of date, as the positive Ofsted report confirmed and a waiting list last year illustrated, Ms Golding said.

She expects 60 per cent of pupils to gain 5 A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths within two years.

And despite Mr Young's fears, she says they are able to take academic combinations such as three sciences or two languages, with 20 even studying online for a Latin GCSE.

Bright, airy new buildings are decorated with impressive pupil artwork on a TES visit. When we dropped in on classrooms at random we are met with well- behaved, studious pupils.

Mr Young has not witnessed any of this. But Ms Golding declines to criticise him for making uninformed comments.

"He is part of the community and all parents talk about local schools and think they know about schools based on the conversations they have had," she reasons. "Toby is no different."

Except of course, unlike most parents, he has been able to broadcast his views across the national media.

Mr Young told The TES he had also publicly praised Acton High and that his criticisms were more to do with his disillusionment with state education in general than any perceived shortcomings at one individual school.

But Ms Golding says his comments have had a damaging effect. "It has taken up a lot of my time trying to avoid being involved with the media," she said.

"That is not what I am here to do. I am an educator and this is a full- time job.

"It has made a lot of my staff feel quite upset, disappointed and devalued, because they come in here and do a fantastic job. And in terms of students I don't think it is nice for anyone to feel your school is being talked down."

The head believes her school is paying the price for Mr Young's own oft- cited poor experience at two comprehensives, where he failed most of his O-levels. "I am not going to criticise him for feeling he had a very bad deal at school," she said. "But that doesn't mean all schools are like that."

Ms Golding says Acton High will survive with its new hard-won reputation intact. But asked if she wished Mr Young had never mentioned her school, she says: "It would have saved me a lot of wasted time.

"But that isn't how people think. When you are looking at getting something you want you don't think about minimising the damage you will do to somebody else."

Mr Young said: "It is nothing personal against Mandy Golding or against Acton High School which I am absolutely sure does an exceptionally good job. It is more just having a completely different educational philosophy from that held by the vast of state secondary school heads."


Toby Young on Acton High .

"I might end up sending some of my children there - it's very strong in the arts - but I want the option of a more academically demanding school."

"It is the ethos and the curriculum of Acton High School that I don't particularly like. Schools are now required to indoctrinate children with positive social values."

"I probably wouldn't be banging on about choice if the local school was more to my liking. It's hamstrung by political correctness."

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