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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.

ELEANOR BENTALL

Sapere aude

ELEANOR BENTALL

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.”

The auto-da-fé prepared after 2009 by Britain’s journalists and politicians was worthy of a more prominent figure. Fiona Millar (Cherie Blair’s former adviser) and Peter Wilby (former editor of the New Statesman) predicted that a failure like Toby Young could never pull it off. Wilby called him “an imbecile, a prat, and a pain in the hindquarters.” The notably humorless Polly Toynbee, whose columns in the Guardian echo the judgments of her grandfather, the world-historical historian of the world, jokingly called it “the Toby Young school of ethics.”

For her part, Millar (Twitter handle @schooltruth) is a member of several organizations and websites that attack Free Schools in general and Young in particular, and writes columns, blog posts, and tweets aimed at him. “It’s about the nervous middle class finding another way of avoiding local schools,” wrote the granddaughter of the Labour aristocrat Anthony Wedgwood Benn, formerly 2nd Viscount Stansgate, whose ethical contortions in the 1960s trying to find a good school for his son are still widely snickered over. Tristram Hunt, a Labour MP, himself the son of a lord and graduate of private schools, called Toby’s projected Free School “a vanity project for Yummie Mummies in West London.” Peter Wilby was the only figure on the left who showed any mercy to Young, when he concluded his column by saying “if the free school concept has any intellectual coherence”—which he very much doubted—“it is largely thanks to him.”

To me, who like many other Americans had known the fin-de-siècle Toby Young-about-Manhattan, the story of Toby’s transformation is as marvelous and incredible as a tale from the Thousand and One Nights. To appreciate how high he has risen in 21st-century Britain, you must understand how low he had sunk in 20th-century America. Toby had persuaded Graydon Carter to bring him to Vanity Fair from London in 1995 for a monthlong tryout that expanded into three years’ employment. He arrived at the Condé Nast building that year with a curious ambition: to become a celebrity journalist so important that celebrities would know Toby didn’t care what they thought of him. He failed. As a journalist he rose no higher than his role as “a glorified caption-writer” for the magazine. His greatest achievement was not a scoop but a colossal faux pas: He hired a “strippergram” dancer to deliver a birthday lapdance to a colleague at the Vanity Fair offices. The fatal day happened to coincide with Condé Nast’s Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. “They can’t take that away from me,” he muses in How to Lose Friends

Toby is more than the diligent journalist he calls himself. He is the Shelley of self-disparagement, and his memoir of New York an Inferno of self-deprecation. Of course, like the Inferno, How to Lose Friends has a Virgil to guide its author: Graydon Carter. As the coeditor of the anti-celebrity Spy magazine before running the celebrity-dependent magazine Vanity Fair, and as a Canadian, Carter interpreted for Toby the differences between English and American culture, and tried to guide him over the narrow border between contempt for celebrities and adoration. Like Dante, Toby gives his Virgil some of the best lines: At Vanity Fair’s annual post-Oscar party in Los Angeles, “Toby, how many times do I have to tell ya, don’t bother the celebrities.” In England, Toby’s success in launching the first Free School (there will be 180 running this fall) bothered more celebrities than he could have done at a dozen Vanity Fair Oscar parties. Was Condé Nast merely a boot camp for Toby’s career as education reformer?

When I visited him at the West London Free School this spring, Toby quoted one of his favorite mottos, a remark by Kingsley Amis about how you should “never make a joke against yourself.” I’ve never seen Toby follow this advice. His inability to do so, I think, manifests an obligation he feels to demonstrate that a journalist reporting on a celebrity’s feet of clay is himself constructed entirely of mud. He does so most beautifully in an article called “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” an account of a focus group on himself run by a Madison Avenue marketing firm he hired for the occasion. The consumer panel consisted of a number of young women, all of whom he knew, including Candace Bushnell, whose Sex and the City series had just launched on HBO. From behind a two-way mirror, Toby observes the women talking about him in a discussion led by an executive from the marketing firm. The members of the panel know he is behind the mirror, but the conversation rolls on with increasing contempt for him and indifference to his presence.

“I met him years ago in London. . . . He was just an idiot.” “I just remember seeing this very obnoxious bald guy sitting on the couch.” “He didn’t really make much of an impression, actually, neither good or bad.” “Is he really bald or is it just that his hair’s really short?” asks Bushnell. “I can never figure it out.”

Toby’s reaction is pure, if decaffeinated, Kafka:

By this stage they had already forgotten that I was sitting behind the two-way mirror. At least I hoped they had. The thought that this was the censored version of what they really thought about me was too much to bear. From time to time, one of them would glance over in my direction and, for a second, I’d think they were looking at me. Then I realized they were just looking at themselves in the mirror. 

In late ’90s New York, Toby’s in-your-face self-deprecation was utterly unlike the behavior of the myrmidons of other British journalists who had come to American magazines and newspapers in the same era. The only thing we had to give Britain was Esquire. In return we welcomed hordes of young journalists, delightful, funny, and expensive to entertain. A whole new U.K.-made publishing category, the “lad magazine,” enriched our culture. Not even Time Inc. was immune from the effortless brisk authority of the new empire builders: In the late ’90s, the most influential young executive on the 34th floor of the Time & Life Building was Isolde Motley, who had arrived in the United States as an au pair.

And then there was Toby Young. Before Toby left London for his Vanity Fair trial, Carter told him that Si Newhouse, Condé Nast’s chief and sole owner, was very eager to meet him. Graydon had evidently made the kind of mistake Canadian emigrants must be very careful to avoid: He oversold the excellence of an Englishman to an American Anglophile. The first day that Toby showed up at the office, under the misapprehension that an “informal dress code” meant shorts and T-shirt, Graydon must have realized that Newhouse was expecting something else. Si would have been delighted to meet the Englishman that Toby ought to have looked like from the pedigree Graydon had sketched. 

Toby is the son of a Labour party intellectual, Michael Young, who as a graduate student had written the 1945 party manifesto that created the entire British welfare state, and who served the Attlee government that executed the plan. Michael Young went on to create the Open University and write a brilliantly ironic dystopia, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), which his Telegraph obituary claimed was responsible for destroying the old 11-plus—the examination that separated Britons into brain workers and hand workers at the age of 11. He was made a peer in 1978. The Hon. Toby Young’s own curriculum vitae would also impress Si Newhouse: a first in PPE (Philosophy, Politics & Economics) at Oxford, graduate study at Harvard, cofounder (with Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman) and editor of one of the hippest British magazines of the early ’90s, Modern Review.

Si would be expecting Graydon to walk into his office with someone on the same level of his English trophy editors: Tina Brown (who had saved Vanity Fair), her husband Harold Evans (who had amiably condescended to launch the excellent travel magazine Condé Nast Traveler, despite having been at the pinnacle of the English newspaper world), and above all Anna Wintour (to whom Si was devoted, despite her having singlehandedly destroyed House & Garden, one of the Condé Nast family jewels). Not only would Si be disappointed in Graydon, but Brown, Evans, and Wintour would make sure that Si never stopped hearing about the Hon. Toby Young. Perhaps after Toby opened a never-to-be completed interview with Nathan Lane by asking him if he was Jewish—and then if he was gay—Carter decided never again to let Toby near the celebrities who collectively were the oxygen that kept Vanity Fair alive.

I hadn’t seen Toby since 2000, at the birthday party of Richard Johnson, then editor of the New York Post’s “Page Six.” In order to greet my diminutive friend and his future wife Caroline, I had to maneuver past the towering figures of Sophie Dahl, Melania Knauss, and Donald Trump. Last month, Toby and I were again in a crowded space, but the space was a library and the crowd consisted of sixth- and seventh-graders (in U.S. terms) at the West London Free School, located temporarily in a former primary school at the end of a quiet street off the busy Hammersmith Road. It’s about half a mile west of the flyover where the Great Western Road from Heathrow drops its traffic into the western edge of what is recognizably London. Toby was there as founder, worrier, and unpaid chairman of the school’s board of directors. 

 

It was the day that parents of 120 children had received offers to join WLFS’s next entering class, and Toby kept checking in with the school’s secretary to see how things were going. Out of some 11 state-supported secondary schools in its area, WLFS was the most oversubscribed, with 1,197 applicants, of whom 296 listed it as their first choice. Schools may not choose among applicants: The match between applicant and school is made by a pan-London admissions authority. “Essentially, we’re not allowed to discriminate in any way deemed by the state to be unfair,” Toby says. 

Before the school opened, Toby’s critic Fiona Millar suggested that the academic traditionalism of WLFS was catnip to middle-class parents and was designed to repel working-class, immigrant, and racial-minority families. WLFS is resolutely traditionalist. Students must take Latin for two years, and the basic academic subjects are mandatory through all six years: English, history, foreign language, math, and science. There are no computers or tablets, and their absence is deliberate. Yet Toby told me that the school population “is a pretty accurate microcosm of the local community.” Almost a quarter of them qualify for free meals (a commonly used measure of social deprivation), a third are black, Asian, or other ethnic minority, and roughly half are children for whom English is not their first language.

Last fall, he wrote that “the Left may imagine that if you don’t teach Citizenship and Media Studies, you’re only going to attract an educated elite, but it turns out that including Latin on the curriculum doesn’t actually put off low income families. Hard as it may be for the Fiona Millars of this world to understand, working class parents are just as passionate about securing the best possible opportunities for their children as middle class parents.”

I saw unmistakable evidence that children had not only been taught substance, but were deploying it on new material. In an English class, 12-year-olds who would have been in seventh grade here were marking up a passage from Romeo and Juliet to show where the author used any of some dozen specific literary devices: alliteration, simile, personification, rhyme, internal rhyme, and the like. (My daughters, veterans of private middle schools in New York, Chicago, and Virginia, told me they were spared such a naked encounter with literary devices until they were safely in high school.) Art class was, if anything, even more demanding. Each child sat at his or her seat sketching a specific square from a grid laid over a big reproduction of a Roy Lichtenstein painting hanging on the wall (a big Lichtenstein exhibit had just opened at the Tate Modern). Afterwards, their teacher told me, they would compare their sections in order to understand how even copying a comic-book style pop art painting demonstrates individual style and acts of interpretation.

We walked outside the building, past an emblem of the school’s Horatian motto, Sapere aude—dare to know. “So because you didn’t want to move out of London as far away as Suffolk, where Caroline told you a good primary school had openings, all this exists—all these kids sapere audent?”

“Err, yes, that was true, I didn’t want to,” Toby says. He has a tendency to growl. “But it was also discovering that there were so few options for anyone, even in a city like London. It angered me that parents were so beholden to local authorities.”

Toby was now visibly angry, growling more. “Really, it pissed me off.” He gave me an embarrassed look, as if he had been talking about his feelings. This wasn’t the New York Toby I remembered, who never wanted any part in political controversies.

“I know,” he says, “but I remember feeling very distinctly—it was August 2009—that this was what it was like to be politicized. And really I’ve been politicized ever since.”

“It might have something to do with a general resentment of authority I have, but I felt this, this surge of anger that there weren’t more schools, much better schools. And then I felt this stubborn refusal to acknowledge that I had to accept that there was so little choice.”

At this moment, the fog that obscured the connection between the 20th- and 21st-century versions of Toby Young lifted. “Graydon,” I said out loud. Toby gave me a crooked grin.

Toby arrived in New York expecting to be the attack dog of the same Graydon Carter who, as coeditor of Spy, had mocked the pretension, vacuity, and unruliness of the rich and famous. By the time Toby arrived, Graydon had joined the other side. When Graydon saw that Toby couldn’t be trusted off his leash with the most humble starlet, Toby’s idol became his jailer. Toby’s downfall was refusing to accept that he had landed in a place where wealth and fame were treated in a careful, even reverent way. Now, as a champion of Free Schools in England, Toby has once again become an unpredictable and unwelcome guest at a celebrity party. “What really surprised me was the reaction to what I intended to do—the entire metropolitan elite and the journalism establishment rose up against me, almost as one.”

“Surprised?” I say, surprised. “Toby, you can’t be serious. You’ve always known these people, and known them better than anyone. How could you possibly have been surprised?”

“Err, yes, well, I had made a few enemies. But I was genuinely taken aback by this, this tsunami of hostility. These people morally disapproved of what I was doing, as if they were a secular priesthood who always knew the best thing for everyone. They couldn’t cope with a new idea. They are absolutely convinced that choice always favors the better off—or now they use the expression, the ‘information-rich.’ They’re not interested in evidence or argument. And they’re so predictable. They think that I could only be motivated by three ideas.”

He lists them: “I am a member of a small group of middle-class people who are starting their own school because we are snobs and want our children only to associate with others of our class. Or, I’m racist and want my children to be with other white children. Well, first of all, the vast majority of English people now see themselves as middle class, secondly, you can see that our school is no more white than [the surrounding borough of] Hammersmith is. Finally they say Free Schools take money away from bog-standard comprehensives. Well, they don’t, and I’ve proven it, but they repeat it anyway.”

Toby is fighting against a far more formidable list of enemies than his New York antagonists—who tended to be publicity assistants armed with clip-boards bent on keeping him out of seats too close to the catwalk during New York Fashion Week. The enemies of Free Schools are political heavyweights. John Prescott, a tough grammar school graduate from Hull, was New Labour’s deputy leader during the Tony Blair era. (The risk of starting good schools, he is famous for having said, is that they might become popular and then everyone will want to go to them.) Vince Cable, the LibDem’s most anti-Free School member, is poised to succeed Nick Clegg as LibDem leader. Fiona Millar’s partner is Alistair Campbell (they refuse on principle to marry), who served Tony Blair as she served Cherie. 

 

Toby hits back hard. “One of the few useful skills I learned as a journalist,” he says, “is not to be intimidated.” He debates his critics frequently on high-profile TV and radio shows: “I’ve debated my critics on Newsnight [BBC2], Question Time [BBC1], Daily Politics [BBC1], The Six O’Clock News [BBC1], Channel 4 News [Channel 4], and Today [BBC Radio 4]. Those are the main current affairs programs over here on radio and television.” He peppers the newspapers with columns and blogs. He even replies to the anonymous commenters on his own pieces and pieces about him, refuting their arguments and correcting their facts. To the posh “posh-bashers” who tell the less-well-off that the unreformed state-funded school system is plenty good enough for their children, he responds personally. Fiona Millar, Alistair Campbell, Melissa Benn, and Vince Cable went to grammar schools and then worked to “pull away the ladder that gave bright working class children a great education.” Does one of his critics send his children to a state-funded school? Toby demands to know whether their children have private lessons or coaching for exams.

When he can, he seizes upon allies on the left like Tony Blair’s education minister Lord Adonis, who first introduced the Academy program, by which schools can free themselves from the control of local authorities but continue to receive funding from the central government. Adonis offers Churchillian counsel to Young, which is then shared with the nation: “They’re not interested in constructive dialogue. Don’t you get it? If you extend any sort of olive branch they’ll see it as a sign of weakness and move in for the kill. I dealt with the same people—the Socialist Workers Party, the Anti Academies Alliance, the NUT [National Union of Teachers]—for most of my ministerial career and they would rather stick pins in their eyes than admit they have common ground with someone like you. Their attitude to Free Schools is the same as to academies: They won’t rest until every last one has been razed to the ground.”

On the other hand, the weightiness of Toby’s antagonists may have elevated his status from the days when he was theater critic for the Spectator and judge on Top Chef. That such an impressive phalanx of worthies pay him such attention, with such malice, has made Toby seem more and more their equal to a public not displeased to see an underdog have his day. Toby’s enemies resemble the “meritocracy” that Michael Young’s 1958 satire foresaw emerging by 2030: “Some members of the meritocracy .  .  . have become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern, and so tactless that even people of low caliber have been quite unnecessarily offended.” The anonymous historian who is meant to be writing the book observes that the meritocracy needs to be particularly tactful because both they and the 99 percent have changed. “Today [in 2030] all persons, however humble .  .  . [are] bound to recognize that they have an inferior status—not as in the past because they were denied opportunity; but because they are inferior.”

“One of your critics,” I say, “predicted that in the light of your well-documented incompetence, your own governing board would push you into the background should the school be so fortunate as to get up and running. How do you spend your time now?”

“I spend about 40 hours a week working for the school,” Toby says. “And on top of that, we’re expanding our status into a Free Schools Trust, which will allow us to open at least one new Free School in West London a year. I hope to be spending most of my time in the future on curriculum development, which really interests me more than the Free School idea as a whole. Do you know there’s an elderly professor who retired from the University of Virginia who has a theory of core knowledge? We’ve had a show on it, and we’re bringing him over.” I assured him that I knew all about E. D. Hirsch. I was amazed that he did.

“The fact is that right now most of my time is spent on building management and our new building. I have to keep on top of half a dozen disciplines: local authority regulations, building codes, planning law, construction, risk registers, EU procurement law—each with their own technical vocabulary. I’ve learned how to navigate the bureaucracy of several Borough Councils .  .  .”

“But your consultants,” I begin to say.

“Sure, we’ve got them, but you really need someone who can coordinate it all, and, more than that, someone who has skin in the game.”

Here the old Toby and the new part company altogether. Toby is thinking and feeling like an entrepreneur or a manager with responsibility—not as a member of the priesthood that attends to celebrity by maintaining its rules of purity, in which Graydon had to instruct Toby carefully: “Toby, from now on, assume that everyone in Hollywood is gay and Jewish,” he advised him after the Nathan Lane incident.

Toby Young is so fond of the joke he made to his wife about becoming hated only after he became good, and has repeated it so often, that even Britain’s secretary for education, Michael Gove, repeated it to me when I met him. But Toby isn’t really one of the vast majority of middle-class people who want to do something vaguely worthwhile. He is one of the very small minority who actually has founded an institution that is worthwhile and changes lives. Although Toby has finally realized his youthful ambition to be someone to whom no celebrity is indifferent, he hardly seems to care any more.

Sam Schulman is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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