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Rise of a Free School

Toby Young’s astonishing second career as an education reformer

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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In Britain, education reform is not the safe topic for conversation between liberals and conservatives it is in America. The glossiest people in U.S. media circles support school reform: Hearst and Bertelsmann supplied New York mayor Michael Bloomberg with two of his school chancellors. Attend a fundraiser in Fairfield County for the school reform outfit ConnCAN, and you may meet Cathy Viscardi Johnston, former executive vice president of Condé Nast, and her husband Doug, former publisher of Vanity Fair. Bigwigs at the BBC would be appalled to know that Brian Williams and Jeff Zucker generously support charter school initiatives.


Sapere aude


Concern for the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is in short supply on the commanding heights of London’s media world. To find a journalist sympathetic to the Cameron government’s Free Schools—the English version of the charter school concept—you have to look down, not up. You’ll have to make do with Toby Young, who Vanity Fair’s editor in chief Graydon Carter described after he fired him in 1998 as “a piece of gum. He lingers on the bottom of your shoe.” Americans may remember Young as the author of a bestselling book recounting his failure to become a celebrity journalist in the New York magazine world of the ’90s, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2001), or from its movie adaptation starring Simon Pegg (2008).

Young became the public face of the Free School movement a year before the 2010 election that made the schools a reality, one of the first initiatives of Michael Gove, the Tory secretary for education in David Cameron’s Conservative-LibDem coalition. Like charter schools in 42 U.S. states and D.C. and Sweden’s friskolor, England’s Free Schools are nonselective, publicly funded, but independently governed institutions. After his New York misadventures, Young had returned to London to write copiously for the Spectator, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Independent, and the Guardian, as befits a journalist approaching 50 with four small children to raise. Then, in August 2009, he published a column in the Guardian headed: “Why I will set up a new school to give my children the best chance in life.” The newspaper gave it this subhead: “Toby Young, son of the visionary founder of the Open University, wants to break down Britain’s apartheid between the private and state sectors by creating a new type of ‘free’ school where access to a good education is not based on income.” He announced a plan “to create a ‘comprehensive grammar,’ that is, a school which is as close as possible to the grammar I went to—traditional curriculum, competitive atmosphere, zero tolerance of disruptive behaviour—but with a non-selective intake [i.e., no competitive entrance exam]. . . . Assuming the Conservatives are in power by June 2010, I should be open for business in September 2011.”

He kept his word. In September 2011 Toby Young’s West London Free School (WLFS) opened its doors to 120 sixth-grade students (Year Seven in British parlance). The school has since admitted one more class, and this September will add a third, bringing it to 360 pupils from ages 11-14. Eventually it will serve over 800 students, up to age 18. In England’s state-supported school systems, parents may apply to up to six secondary schools. WLFS is already among the most “oversubscribed” schools in England.

Young’s life changed after August 2009. He expected opposition from the teachers’ unions and their hard-left allies, and got it. But their social betters opened another front. The media establishment, the commentariat, and an astonishing number of heavyweight politicians, including some from the upper ranks of the LibDem party (part of the coalition government that had established Free Schools), launched a barrage of newspaper columns, televised denunciations, and custom-built NGOs devoted to attacking Young as a selfish parent and child of privilege trying to ruin the nation’s schools. It wasn’t just in the Guardian. Building magazine (“the UK’s leading magazine for construction professionals”) asked if Young was deliberately trying to alienate every school architect in the country. A BBC disc jockey joked about wanting “to punch to death” everyone who had appeared in an August 2010 BBC2 documentary on Young’s project.

How did the man who made himself famous for having failed become so important a figure to the establishment? Young wonders about this himself. “As a self-obsessed, celebrity journalist, I wasn’t exactly universally loved,” Young says he told his wife after the BBC2 documentary aired, “but it’s only since setting out to do something genuinely worthwhile and public-spirited that I’ve become truly hated.”

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