Review - How to take Toby's tale with a pinch of salt

23rd December 2011 at 00:00

Toby Young is a writer. This was forgotten in recent years as he became the public face of a campaign to open Britain's first "grammar school for all". To do so successfully, Mr Young was forced to battle against idiotic bureaucrats, craven socialists, lefty columnists and even a Saudi Arabian king. At least, that's the way Toby Young the writer likes to depict it.

How to Set Up a Free School is a memoir similar to Young's autobiography How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, but with added smatterings of advice for potential free schoolers. From the outset Mr Young portrays himself as an unsung hero. Unhappy with their local schools in west London, his wife decides the family must move to Suffolk. Mr Young starts a rebellion, asking: "If my father could set up a university, how hard could it be to set up a secondary school?" (Some will be surprised to know that his father, Michael Young, was a socialist, architect of Labour's victorious 1945 election manifesto and founder of the Open University.)

Mr Young details the baffling acronyms, bamboozling legalities and endless hurdles his team encountered. The detail is meant to inform potential free-school applicants, but it feels more like an interruption to a grander story; the application process has changed dramatically since the first wave of schools.

Yet there is some sound advice: don't jeopardise neighbouring schools, but instead open in a place where a new school is needed; focus on providing great schools in areas of deprivation; and include as many people as possible in consultations. These measures appear to show a concern for the education system, but this hope is dashed when Mr Young reveals that they exist to "future-proof" proposals - after all, who wants to close a desirable school for poor kids?

Such aggravating contradictions appear throughout the book. Mr Young says he's on the side of the Left, but fails to adequately engage with arguments against free schools. He claims his actions are something his father "would be proud of" before describing his belligerence towards anyone objecting to the school. And though he talks in detail about a school site he failed to secure, he doesn't mention how his team acquired the Cambridge Grove site previously earmarked for a special school.

If you're interested in free schools, read the book. It's cheap, well-written and you'll learn a lot about Mr Young. But don't expect it to be an entirely frank or trustworthy portrayal. After all, Toby Young is still a writer.

Laura McInerney is a teacher and policy development partner for education consultancy LKMco. She is the author of "The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools and How to Avoid Them".

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