Toby Young's plan to make friends all over the country

9th September 2011 at 01:00
As his much-publicised free school opens in London, the author envisages a chain of up to 25

For well over two years, he has been the unmistakable public face of the Conservatives' free-schools policy, appearing on or in any media outlet that would listen to his plans to set up such an institution.

Toby Young, author of the now-celebrated memoir of New York life in the Eighties How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, has been unstinting in his defence of the Coalition's plans for the new schools.

But now it has emerged that his interest in the controversial policy - modelled on the Swedish education system - goes even deeper. He has revealed that one school is not enough: he wants a chain.

Having been appointed chair of governors of the West London Free School in Hammersmith, which opened on Wednesday (7 September), Mr Young says that if this one is successful, many others could follow.

"I hope it is (a success). It would be great to try to open schools in other parts of London and elsewhere in the country," he said. Mr Young added that there was no timeframe for when he would establish the schools, but said he would prefer a mix of primaries, secondaries and sixth-form colleges.

He has even gone as far as discussing the possibility of up to 25 such institutions, but makes it clear that this kind of speculation could be "premature". But he said he was already hunting for locations for a primary school and a sixth-form college close to the West London Free School.

The author and journalist also seems to be following Department for Education (DfE) policy as it develops, when he says that "in an ideal world pupils would attend the schools all the way through from four to 18". Last week, the newly appointed DfE schools commissioner Elizabeth Sidwell said she was keen to encourage the creation of more "all-through academies".

Speaking to The TES as final preparations for the school's opening were being made, he said he felt "very excited". "The Mayor of London (Boris Johnson) will be opening the school and most parents are coming. It will be a wonderful occasion," he added.

The school is one of the first waves of free schools to open as part of education secretary Michael Gove's reforms to allow parents and faith groups to set up their own schools.

Funded by the state, the schools are based on similar models from Sweden and the US. Eden Primary School in Haringey, north London, Nishkam Primary School in Birmingham and Krishna Avanti Primary School in Leicester are among the 24 free schools to open this year.

The programme has faced criticism from Labour MPs and teaching unions. Despite Mr Gove saying his free schools would offer children from the poorest backgrounds the type of education usually reserved for the richest, a recent report found that more than half of the first group of free schools opening this month are located in the country's least deprived areas.

Pedigree for success

The Young one

Toby Young is the son of Labour peer and Open University founder Lord Young. The journalist and author of the book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People - which recalls his time in New York as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and was later made into a film - led a local parenting group in west London to set up the school. He is married with four children.

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