The trials and tribulations of creating a 'free' school

Peter Stanford talks to Toby Young about his quest to provide a decent education for his children

"I never see my friends. I never have time to read a Sunday newspaper. It has taken over my life." The writer and broadcaster Toby Young is reflecting in the garden of his west London home on the personal cost of spending the past 12 months trying to set up a parent-promoted school in Acton. "And," he adds with a laugh, "there isn't even a guarantee that I will be able to get my own kids in. I'll have to apply for a place like any other parent."

The future of parent-promoted schools is looking a lot rosier with a change of government. The new Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is an unabashed fan, though he prefers to call them "free" schools. "The legislation we need was already in place before the election," says Young, 46, a father of four children under seven, the co-founder of the Modern Review and the author of the best-selling memoir How To Lose Friends and Alienate People.

"But my experience so far is that for it to work you need high-level political support, and Ed Balls [the former Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families] was an implacable opponent of our plans for the West London Free School. We never found out precisely why, because we took a decision not to make an official approach on the argument that, if he knocked us back, it would make it harder to continue. Now, however, with Michael Gove, I'm much more optimistic."

Three parent-promoted schools were up and running by the time Labour left office. As if to prove Young's point about the need for heavyweight political backing for such schemes, the flagship Elmgreen School, in West Norwood, South London, counted among its backers, the former Culture Secretary and local MP, Tessa Jowell. Now, however, Young is looking forward to some of the obstacles his group has encountered being removed by the Government. It might even give him time to read the Sunday papers.

"The bureaucratic thicket I have been hacking through will, I predict, be removed. They need to figure out which bit of the huge Department for Education will work with parents' groups like ours. The Office of the Schools Commissioner [the admissions watchdog] looks like the most obvious bet, but the whole process has to be much easier. I have been on a vertical learning curve, and I have only grasped 1 per cent of what I need to know."

As a parent committed to state education, it was his concern about a shortage of places in his local borough of Ealing that prompted Young last August to publish an article trumpeting his intention of setting up on his doorstep the sort of "free" school that Gove was busy promoting in opposition. "My plan," Young wrote, "is 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. It will be for 11 to 16-year-olds, with a total of 750 pupils. I should be open for business in September 2011."

Everything, he says, is going to plan. "We've found a disused school building in Ealing which we hope to lease."

Will this building be temporary? The Elmgreen School makes much of its smart new building on its website. "No," he replies, "because this isn't about buildings, and I just don't think the money for brand new buildings will be available in this economic climate."

There is a 14-strong steering group for the West London Free School – distilled from the 50- plus local people who responded to Young's plea for like minds to come forward. Are they, as critics have suggested, pushy middle classes? "No," he answers emphatically, "and of the 450 groups who have registered an interest in setting up a school with the New Schools Network, most are not middle class. Neither, in our case, are all of us parents. We have three or four people who are willing to give their time for nothing because they want local children to have a classical liberal education."

What kind of education does Young want West London Free School to offer? In the past, he has made reference to his local secondary in his home turf of Acton, where GCSE pass rates are below the national average. He has also drawn on his own experience of attending "bog-standard" comprehensives where "the only thing I learned was how to roll a joint" before seeing his academic fortunes transformed by William Ellis grammar school in north London and getting in to Oxford. Today, however, he is stressing quantity, not quality. There is, he says, a shortage of places in Ealing. "There has been a population boom here in the past five years and we just don't have enough places."

On the steering group that Young chairs is the chief economist at Ofgem who has examined local authority projections for secondary places, including a promised £300m boost from Building Schools for the Future, which will fund refurbishments and a new build in Greenford, and concluded that there will still be a shortfall. This is where the West London Free School comes in.

At Elmgreen, the parents have worked with the local authority of Lambeth, but Young has little expectation of help from Ealing. "Too often with local authorities, it is not just the elected members you have to contend with, but also the officers. It's the Sir Humphreys who are in charge rather than the Jim Hackers. Naturally, they want to retain control. It is in their DNA."

Instead, his steering group is going direct to central government for funding, using existing legislation on the setting up of academies, which no longer require a sponsor to come up with £2m. At present, he reports, they are considering tenders from "school providers" to run the school. Commercial organisations such as Nord Anglia, and charitable ones like CfBT Education Trust are poised to become central to the expansion of free schools once clarification emerges from Gove. Young reflects with relief: "They will be able to take on the heavy lifting. So far, as pioneers, we've had to do all that ourselves."


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