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Setting up your own school - Q and A with Toby Young

Most parents have strong views about education, but not many of us would go as far as setting up our own school. Journalist and author Toby Young is doing just that, and leading a group of parents and teachers in West London who are aiming to set up one of the first free schools in the country. Toby and his wife have four children - and they used Gina's books to help establish routines for their family.

Toby has answered some of our questions about his views on education, about the plans for the new school and how it will differ from existing state schools in the area. We began by asking him what made him take on the hugely time-consuming and daunting prospect of setting up a school.

Like many people, I didn't spend much time thinking about education until I became a parent. Now that I have four children, I think about little else. Finding a good state primary school in West London where I live is hard enough, but a good secondary is a real challenge, particularly if you don't meet the eligibility criteria for a faith school.

I know just how easily comprehensives can let some pupils down. I attended two mediocre comps and ended up failing all my O-levels. I needed a disciplined, competitive environment in order to thrive and it wasn't until I switched to a grammar that I managed to get three A-levels and win a place at Oxford.

The nearest comprehensive to me in West London has a GCSE pass rate below the national average. Unfortunately, if my children do as badly as I did there is no grammar school to pick up the pieces.

Many people who've have found themselves in this position have simply gone private, but my wife and I are reluctant to do that. As the product of state schools ourselves, we benefited enormously from being educated alongside people from a broad range of backgrounds. We now feel part of British society in a way that friends of ours who were educated privately don't. Our worry is that if we send our children to an independent school they will be surrounded by people of just one type. When they emerge into the wider world, they won't think of themselves as part of contemporary Britain, with all its challenges, but of a privileged elite.

It seemed like our only option was to either move to the country or jump through the hoops to get into a faith school. Then I realized there was a third option: We could get together with our friends and neighbours and start our own school.

What do you think is wrong with the current education system?

The biggest problem is that unless you happen to be of the right particular faith or are rich enough to go private, gaining access to a really good secondary school for your children is extremely hard. That's particularly true now that there are only 164 grammar schools left in England. There are a few outstanding secular comprehensives, but you have to live within half a mile of them in order to secure a place and that involves paying a property premium. The upshot of this educational apartheid is that social mobility in the country has ground to a halt, with privilege becoming more solidified at one end of the spectrum and poverty more entrenched at the other. Free schools are an attempt to address that problem by giving more children access to high-performing, academic schools.

How will your school differ from existing state schools?

The West London Free School will be an academically rigorous, 11-18 school that's accessible to children from all parts of the community, not just those whose parents are of the right particular faith or who can afford to go private. The school will be non-selective as well as being secular and co-educational. Its core offer will be a classical liberal education and all children will be expected to learn Latin up to the age of 14 and sit between eight and ten academic GCSEs or IGCSEs. The intention is that every pupil will obtain the requisite GCSEs or IGCSEs at the end of Key Stage 4 to enable them to take the necessary A-levels - or do sufficiently well in the IB - to get into a good university. While the school will be open to anyone, expectations will be high, both of pupils and staff. Strong discipline and an outstanding level of pastoral care will be a priority. Competitive sport will play a central part in the school's ethos and our specialism will be Music.

You are planning a very academic curriculum - is that really suitable for children of all abilities?

We've been told that trying to set up a 'comprehensive grammr' - a school with a comprehensive intake, but a grammar school curriculum - is fundamentally misguided. Roy Hattersley described it as a 'contradiction in terms', while Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the NUT, compared it to a 'vegetarian butcher'. In fact, that was precisely the aim of Tony Crosland, Labour's Education Secretary in the mid-60s. The 1964 Labour Party manifesto described comprehensives as 'grammar schools for all' and that's exactly what we'd like the West London Free School to be - a grammar school for all. Some children will struggle with our academic curriculum, but we intend to use tried-and-tested methods of bringing them up to speed, such as an extended school day. The Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, which is an all-ability school, has proved that with the right ethos and outstanding leadership anything is possible. Forty per cent of its pupils are eligible for Free School Meals, 30 per cent are on the special needs register and 40 per cent are from homes where English is not the first language, yet in 2010 83 per cent got five good GCSEs including Maths and English.

Surely there is a danger that your school will end up perpetuating the divisions in the education system by drawing middle-class children away from the existing comprehensives in the area - how will you ensure it has a balanced intake?

Actually, middle-class parents are proving to be quite cautious when it comes to our school. They tend to want a more rounded education for the children, with less focus on academic attainment. They're also wary of a school that's untried and untested. The people that really respond positively to our offer are black, Asian and ethnic minority parents, many of them first generation immigrants.

Your school is one of the first free schools to get government approval - what happens next?

Our two biggest priorities are nailing down a site and hiring a Headteacher. We think we've now got the site sorted and we've just started advertising for a Headteacher and Deputy Head. We're on track to sign our funding agreement with the Department for Education in January and we're about to start accepting applications.

How long do you expect it will take before you can open your doors to the first pupils?

The plan is to admit 120 year 7s in September, 2011. I'm confident we'll be able to do that. Indeed, if anyone reading this would like to apply, please fill out our online expression of interest form and send us your details.

Will your own children be guaranteed a place at your school?

No. We haven't finalized our admissions policy, but it will almost certainly be a combination of proximity and random allocation, with a certain percentage of places being set aside for those families who live near the school and the rest allocated via lottery. I don't live particularly close to the site so I'll just have to take my chances in the lottery along with everyone else.

Having got this far down the line, is it something you'd recommend to other parents who are fed up with their local state education provision? And if so, would you have any advice?

Yes I would. Even though I have no guarantee my own children will get into the school it's been a hugely satisfying experience. 15 years ago, when I worked for Vanity Fair, my life consisted of flitting from one party to another in New York. Loads of fun, obviously, but not very satisfying. Doing something that's going to benefit your community for years to come, like starting a school, is much more fulfilling. I'm a big believer in the Big Society.

Anyone wanting to start a school in their area should contact Rachel Wolf at the New Schools Network at rachelwolf@newschoolsnetwork.org. She can give you chapter and verse on how to do it.

Anyone wanting to find out more about the West London Free School should visit our website at www.westlondonfreeschool.co.uk

About Toby

Toby Young is a British journalist and the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2001) and The Sound of No Hands Clapping (2006). Young is now an associate editor of the Spectator and a blogger for the Daily Telegraph. He has performed in the West End in a stage adaptation of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and, in 2005, co-wrote a sex farce about the David Blunkett/Kimberley Quinn scandal called Who's the Daddy?. It was named Best New Comedy at the 2006 Theatregoers' Choice Awards. He co-produced the film version of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008) and more recently co-produced and co-wrote a dramadoc for More4 called When Boris Met Dave (2009). His teaching experience includes working as a teaching fellow at Harvard and a teaching assistant at Cambridge. He lives in West London with his wife and four children.

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