Toby Young is named director of government-backed free schools charity

Author, journalist and campaigner calls for government to raise its free school target to 750 by 2020

Richard Vaughan

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Toby Young, the author, journalist and original poster boy for the free schools movement has been named as the new director of the government-backed charity, New Schools Network (NSN).

Mr Young, who will assume the role in January, said he will use his position at the organisation to call on the government to go further in its ambitions for the free-school programme and demand they open 750 of the schools by 2020.

Prime minister Theresa May has stated her intention to keep to the government’s commitment of opening 500 free schools by the end of this Parliament.

But Mr Young, who was among the first to open a free school back in 2011, said the government should capture the “incredible momentum” behind the policy and increase their target by 50 per cent.

“One thing I do feel very strongly [about] is that the 500 new free schools [to be] opened in this parliament, I think that needs to be raised to 750.

“In the Green Paper it says we’re going to need 458,000 new school places between now and 2020 and I think free schools are best placed to deliver high quality new school places. And they’re also the most cost-effective way of delivering those places.”

And he added: “There is now this incredible momentum behind this programme and we see that with the number of high-quality applications that are made in each wave.”   

Mr Young, who is perhaps best known for his journalism and being the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, which was later made into a film, was one of the most vocal supporters of the free-school policy when it was first put forward.

The personal friend of former education secretary Michael Gove was among the first to open a free school in the shape of the West London Free School in Hammersmith.

He described it as a “comprehensive grammar school” that would provide children from different backgrounds with a classical liberal education.

The school proved popular and he went on to open three more, eventually becoming chief executive of the West London Free School Academies Trust.

The original secondary has gone on to secure creditable GCSE results in its first year, with 76 per cent of pupils gained at least five A* to C grades including English and maths.

"I believe I have shown that I have walked the walk. My experience, and it being a positive one, will help to promote free schools more generally."  

Previous incumbents of the directorship at NSN have used the role as a springboard to more prominent positions within government, which makes Mr Young’s appointment a surprising choice, despite him becoming an increasing noise in the education sphere.

The founding director of the NSN was Rachel Wolf, who later became education advisor to David Cameron at Number 10 after a stint working for Rupert Murdoch in New York.

Natalie Evans then took over the reins, and she is now leader of the House of Lords having been handed a peerage by Mr Cameron. 

The most recent person at the helm was Nick Timothy, who remained in the post for less than a year before taking up his current role as joint chief of staff at Number 10.  

But Mr Young pointed to his previous accomplishments in establishing free schools as evidence for his appointment. “I have been banging the drum for free schools since 2009,” he said. “I helped set up four of them and I believe passionately in the free school programme. This seemed like a fantastic opportunity to continue the work I had already being doing.”

The line up of former directors has led to accusations from some onlookers that the charity is a “Tory front”, but Mr Young said it worked with a “wide range of groups”.

“I don’t think I am chancing my arm when I say that the majority of people NSN works with are left of centre, as most of education is,” he said.

The journalist added that the charity’s new advisory board boasts the likes of Philip Collins, former speechwriter to Tony Blair, and David Laws, the former Liberal Democrat schools minister.

He did admit, however, that he was eager to generate more funding from business, external donors and other corporations in a bid to reduce the amount of money it receives from the Department for Education.

Mr Young said that he intends to continue his journalism, and will remain as associate editor of the Spectator. 

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

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