Lunch with the FT: Toby Young

Toby Young is not nervous about publicity. I first met him at last year’s Conservative party conference in Birmingham. The journalist and author approached me in a bar, pretended to punch me in the stomach several times, then looked up and asked: “Why haven’t you written about my school yet?”

Young, 47, is chairman of the governors at the West London Free School, a new secondary school in Hammersmith, which will welcome its first pupils (120 children aged 11) next month. It is a high-profile project that has made Young a regular participant in debates about education in Britain.

The school is one of the first wave of “free schools”, funded by the state but founded by private groups such as churches or community groups (in Young’s case, local parents), intended to bring new providers into the education system.

What makes the West London Free School particularly unusual is the celebrity of its chairman. Young first attracted attention in the early 1990s as the bumptious co-founder and editor of the Modern Review magazine before moving to the US. In New York he worked as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine where he was not a success and fell out with Graydon Carter, its editor, though subsequently Young managed to convert the experience into a successful book, play and film, all called How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.

Today Young still works as a journalist but his new role as a schools campaigner has catapulted him from a safe berth as a cultural commentator into the front line of the endless skirmishing in English education.

Asked to pick a venue in London, Young, who has worked as a food critic and as a judge on the US television show Top Chef, considered a number of glamorous alternatives before settling on Yoshi Sushi, a simple Japanese restaurant near his new school. He is a regular visitor and when he arrives, shortly after I do, he is offered his “usual” table among the dark wood and paper screens. Wearing a black fleece over a blue shirt, and carrying his bicycle helmet, he stows a Brompton folding bicycle under the table. I suggest that he chooses for us both, and he rattles off a long list of lunch items from memory – too quickly for the server to keep up.

He orders a bowl of salted edamame beans, soft-shelled crab and prawn tempura as well as a selection of rolls and sashimi. The food arrives quickly and we graze and chatter as we drink from cans of Coca-Cola and exchange gossip about goings-on at the Department for Education.

Young does not have the manner of a politician or an ideologue: even when he is deadly serious, he speaks with a wry smile and cracks jokes about himself. In print and person, he often gives an impression that he does not take things seriously. I ask him if he struggles to be taken seriously. “I didn’t have a hugely successful time in New York. And I decided that turning it into a ‘shtick’ was a way to fashion gold out of base metal, but then I became saddled with this ‘professional failure’ tag.”

I remind him how, during our first meeting, a Conservative activist from Durham had come up to him at the bar and asked whether he was setting up a school in order to give himself a “fresh disaster” to write about. That evening, the accusation provoked an angry reply. Over lunch, nearly a year later, he appears bemused.

“Several people have accused me of that. It certainly isn’t my intention for the school to fail just so I can get some material. I think I am more serious about this than I have been about anything else. I’ve enjoyed being a free-school campaigner,” he says.

We quickly polish off the crab. A lone piece of prawn remains as we move on to the sashimi. The food is excellent; the restaurant is a popular lunch venue for Japanese Londoners.

Young says that, while the West London Free School is not a vanity vehicle, he felt that courting publicity was an important part of the strategy. “I decided at the beginning of the process that to try to do it in a high profile way would make it more likely to succeed.”

His calculation appears to have been correct: the school has been pulled together remarkably quickly. The legislation allowing it to open was only passed in July last year. “Because we are the most high-profile free-school proposal, the government wants it to be seen to succeed. It has, therefore, been quite helpful.”

There are other advantages to being well-known. “It has been easier to recruit staff. And it helped when it came to persuading parents to apply for the school. We had about 500 applicants for our 120 places this year.”

The high demand for places at the school could mean that Young’s own children (he and his wife, Caroline, have four – Sasha, Ludo, Freddie and Charlie – under nine) may not get places when they eventually reach secondary school age. “My eldest will definitely apply; she won’t definitely get in. We’ll probably have a one in four chance of getting in.”

Young has become a target for opponents of free schools. Teaching unions object to the fact that teachers at free schools need not have formal teaching qualifications. Officials in local authorities, the municipal bodies that run most other schools, dislike both the competition and practical complications that free schools cause.

Young is also not the Department for Education’s preferred champion. Mixing wasabi and soy sauce in a small bowl as he makes his way through the sushi, Young says, “I think, presentationally, the powers-that-be would prefer it if I were a black working-class woman.”

But, he says, his own prominent role reduces the pressure on more reticent groups who want to avoid publicity. And, even if he had pursued a lower profile strategy, the West London Free School would still have been a target. The £15m that will have been spent by the Department for Education on the new school’s buildings would, it could be argued, otherwise have gone into repairing or expanding existing schools.

The school’s avowedly classical curriculum is also controversial. “I believe all children can benefit from studying Latin, from learning about Britain’s history, from reading Shakespeare, and to deny them that opportunity on the grounds that those things are ‘middle class’ is a form of inverted snobbery that does children from low-income families no favours.

“We will never dismantle the class system in this country if poor children are herded into media studies classes and made to study [television programmes], while rich children are introduced to the best that’s been thought and written. That’s not social justice. It’s social apartheid.”

He says this old-fashioned curriculum is “very appealing to working-class parents, immigrants ... The proof will be in the pudding.” But the early portents are that the school’s pupils will come from richer backgrounds than those in surrounding state schools. Initial estimates suggest that about 17 per cent of the entry are eligible for free school meals – an indicator of poverty. Other local state secondary schools have a rate of 31 per cent.

Young also draws fire from the left because of his status as what he calls “an apostate Labour princeling”. His father, the late Lord Young, is a Labour party immortal, a thinker and social entrepreneur whose thoughts informed the construction of postwar Britain – of whom Young the younger is fiercely proud.

Michael Young was one of the authors of the 1945 Labour party manifesto, coined the word “meritocracy”, was a consumer rights champion and a founder of the Open University, the distance-learning university opened in 1971. Lord Young, who died in 2002, certainly looms over his son’s life.

I suggest to Young that perhaps the school is his attempt to recast himself into something of which his father would approve. Young is doubtful, although he thinks his father would have supported him and would understand the struggle: “When my father tried to set up the Open University he did meet a wall of opposition. At the time it was a real battle.”

Slightly irritated at the suggestion that he might not have lived up to his father’s hopes (or, perhaps, just irritated by my amateur attempts at psychoanalysis), Young says that he has been involved in “not entirely unserious” endeavours before the school, including his stint at the Modern Review and a brief academic career in philosophy and political science. “I’ve always had a serious side. I indulged in a PhD [uncompleted] after leaving Harvard, where I was a teaching fellow. I also taught at Cambridge for two years.”

He tries to defend some of his later impishness, too: “The impetus to set up the school very much came from the same place that the desire to take the piss out of Graydon Carter came from. A resentment at being told what to do and a refusal to accept the fate laid out for you by the powers that be.” He describes this trait as “a very British stubbornness and an unwillingness to be pushed around”. But then he slips back into gentle self-mockery. Referring to Shakespeare’s account of the life of Henry V, who became a hero when he took the English throne, he said, “The person I like to compare myself to is Prince Hal, who for years led a fairly dissolute life of drinking and carousing and was friends with Falstaff. But cometh the hour, cometh the man ... He was able to take on the mantle of his father’s legacy.”

Young says his involvement in the free-school movement has made him loyal to the Conservative-led coalition government: “This is an issue on which you have to take sides and given that the coalition is in favour of the policy ... I sort of feel we have a duty to stand up for the coalition and defend it. Shirking that duty seems a bit unmanly.”

Our meal ends with slices of melon, brought to the table. I settle up and we wander along the street to look at the new school, before sloping off to a café next door for coffee. It is here he reveals that the Young education project has barely begun.

“My long-term aim is to set up at least 25 schools on the West London Free School model.” He is currently looking for a site for the sixth form, intends to set up a primary school taking in 60 pupils a year nearby, and is establishing a trade body to provide “political, legal and PR advice” to existing and nascent free-school groups.

A taste for institution-building is, it seems, hereditary.

Chris Cook is the FT’s education correspondent

‘School Wars’ (Verso, £12.99) will be published on September 5

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