Acton High School - a good West London local school

Marie Faulkner's picture
The West London Free School was set up by Toby Young et al, claiming to fill the vacuum of a suitable 'local' school up to acceptable standard for their children. In this article I have chosen not to focus on the group of parents/teachers/politicians/business opportunists who want to set up this new 'free' school. Instead I have decided to take a closer look at the current 'local' school for those in this specific same catchment area. In this case - Acton High School.

Acton High School is a slightly larger than average 11-16 mixed comprehensive, with students who come from a diverse range of socio-economic and ethnic communities. The majority of pupils have a first language that is not English, and a small minority are at an early stage of learning to speak English. A very high proportion is eligible for free school meals, and the proportion with special educational needs is almost twice the national average' (Ofsted 2009). The school received a good rating from Ofsted with comments about outstanding care for students and the promotion of community cohesion. 'When we dropped in on classrooms at random we were met with well-behaved, studious pupils' (Ofsted 2009).

This school has been the object of multiple unfair and unjustifiable insults and abuse for not being being 'academically rigorous enough'. Founder of the West London Free School Toby Young has been responsible for a politically motivated vendetta makes Phil Woolas look like a saint. In reality Acton High is a school which offers a range of academic combinations including international English qualifications, the opportunity to take three sciences or two languages (twenty pupils even studying online for a Latin GCSE). I feel it is very sad when political objectives result in running down our existing local schools that deserves to be celebrated and encouraged and instead dragged through the dirt.

Last month on national TV, Young said he disliked Acton High’s ethos and curriculum because they were required to 'indoctrinate children'. As far as I know he has never visited the school, but has proceeded gratuitously to give his local school a bad reputation just for the mischief of it. Ms. Golding, the head teacher of the school had to announce that students did study academic subjects, adding that Acton High's poor reputation was rather old news and that she expected sixty per cent of pupils to gain five A*-C GCSEs within two years.

Problems exists in all schools and no doubt there will be some in schools that haven't yet opened, that are  initiated by groups of parents who have still not told the community even where their premises will be. Temporary sites mean that for the first few years pupils may be bussed around various boroughs, hardly good for their education.  At the end of the day, setting up a politically motivated new school, as purely 'altruistic' and not indoctrinating, screams the opposite to me. It actually runs roughshod over the local community. If Acton High were so far below par and you were someone with influence in the highest echelons of government, why not attempt to 'help' the local school and be positively active in striving for national changes in regulations ?

Throughout my own research I have found that many, if not most, of our existing schools already have many of the same flexibilities as are seen as the incentive for academies/ Free Schools. The issue that currently worries me most is that the Coalition’s new education policies do not include any viable concept of support for those schools that truly are 'failing'.... it is almost as though they want them to fail so they can be written off and become academies, and not out of choice. That is not CHOICE. That is no good for today’s pupils, parents, teachers and communities. We need to address the problems in our system and to correct them, not make new ones (that are essentially experimental and copied from other unsuccessful models in US/ Sweden), all tied up in some fancy new political wrapping paper and ribbons to appeal to readers of the Daily Telegraph.

What Toby Young seems to want for his children is that which high end private schools promise, because he does not like the concept of public education. That is his prerogative and part of the “CHOICE” we already enjoy. Please reach for your cheque book Mr. Young, and stop slagging off your local school.
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Toby Young's picture
Thu, 06/01/2011 - 14:01

I've always tried to be very fair-minded whenever I've spoken or written about Acton High School. On the Newsnight report about the West London Free School, for instance, I described AHS as an excellent local school. You can watch that report here (

The case for the West London Free School is not that the local school is inadequate, but that there's a shortage of secondary school places in my part of London. Over the next ten years, the boroughs of Hounslow, Ealing and Hammersmith and Fulham will need at least half a dozen new secondary schools to cope with the anticipated need. So the issue isn't whether we need a new school in Hammersmith and Fulham. In the YouGov survey commissioned by the NUT published on Monday, 65% of parents agreed that a new school was needed. The issue is who should establish it, the local authority or a group of teachers and parents? In the same poll, 40% of parents in the borough said the council, but 50% said a group of teachers and 30% a group of parents.

We could set up a school with an identical ethos and curriculum to Acton High School, but what would be the point? There are already plenty of community schools in all three boroughs offering precisely that kind of education. Surely, it's better to set up a school offering something a little bit different so local parents have more choice.

Of course, I prefer the ethos and curriculum of the West London Free School and have tried to make the case for a classical liberal education countless times. But I accept that some parents will prefer the type of education on offer at the local community schools. The difference between you and me Marie is that I want parents to be able to choose between a wide variety of different schools offering different types of education, while you want all parents to send their children to local community school. You believe in a one-size-fits-all, educational monoculture, while I believe in letting a thousand flowers bloom.

Your final point reveals your own prejudices. First of all, it's not true that the sort of education I'd like for my children is only available in the private sector. Plenty of outstanding state schools offer a classical liberal education – though, unfortunately, they're the ones you and your political colleagues would like to see turned into community schools. But I would agree that, with a few exceptions, only middle class parents currently have access to these sorts of state schools. Another key part of the case for the West London Free School is that all parents should have access to schools offering a classical liberal education, not just those of a particular faith, who live in the right catchment area or who can afford to go private.

As I say, I'm full of admiration for Acton High School. But there's room for more than one type of state secondary school in my part of London and we need some new schools.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 06/01/2011 - 15:29

Toby, I suppose the worry is that your school encourages white middle class parents to separate their children from ones who are from different ethnic and social backgrounds to yours, thus leading to increasing social segregation in our society. I am sending my son to the local comprehensive, where he will be in a minority being a white middle-class child, but I believe he needs to be part of the local community, not separated from it in a free school which is full of children from white, middle-class backgrounds.

Nigel Ford's picture
Thu, 06/01/2011 - 17:29

Toby, I maybe a lone voice when I say I don't think your case is without merit, but it's slightly disingenuous of you to say above, that (logistically) there is a need for a new school in Acton yet in your televised debate with Fiona Millar you said you wouldn't be setting up a new school if you had access to a comprehensive with the same ethos and standards as Camden High in your area, which is an indirect criticism of Acton High School
- 5 mins 10 sec

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 06/01/2011 - 17:39

On the "one-size" fits all argument, I don't agree with you Toby. Many schools can offer real diversity of choice of curriculum within the school; that's what the key. Real diversity of choice, of course, would be created by school's co-operating properly so they can share resources/teachers/facilities, not competing against each other

Ironically, this is being changed by the current government: by encouraging more competition, they are reducing choice by making schools 'go it alone', and by introducing the English Bacc, they are reducing it in the curriculum too.

Melissa Benn's picture
Thu, 06/01/2011 - 19:32

Surely a really good state/public education system should nationally determine the building blocks of an excellent education and make sure that every single child gets it? Not in the top down prescriptive way of Baker's curriculum nor in the 'drill and drone'/ ask-my-mates manner I suspect we will get from Michael Gove.......but in broad outline. .

We should have a grown up debate, involving expert educators/subject specialists, to determine what constitutes a good education, at each age and stage, in literature to language, science to maths, music and the arts. Highly trained, well paid and well supported teachers should be entrusted to deliver this curriculum in different ways, according to their talents, preferences as well as local circumstance and without excessive testing. If we did this, our PISA rankings would soar....

The final chapter of Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education makes the case for this beautifully; a former adviser to Bush and one of the most senior educational administrators/experts in the US, she has come round to the view that charter/free schools damage the public education of the majority precisely because they distract from this national imperative to improve the education of all, and not just a select few.

( She also mounts a powerful defence of the teachers' unions who have come in for an appalling amount of ignorant flak from some of the Free School- ers)

What follows from this is that if someone like Toby Y thinks that Latin is so important a building block for a good education ( and I am not convinced ) then he should make his case through government/public debate for all schools to adopt it. If he's really such a passionate advocate of educating children from poor backgrounds well, THIS should be his defining crusade...... if it's good enough for the children at Eton, then it's good enough for the children of Hull....

All this Free School talk about divergent curricula and emphasis on choice etc not to mention a lack of clarity over admissions policies, makes me uneasy because it's pretty obviously a way of setting up largely separate schools for certain kinds of middle class families who don't want to send their children to their local school largely out of innate prejudice - as David Woods, the government's chief adviser on London schools said last January.

Nigel Ford's picture
Thu, 06/01/2011 - 20:29

While I have some sympathy with the concept of choice, the flip side to this situation is given that there is a logistical need for a new school in Acton and the WLFS comes into existence might it not be the case that if there are unqualified staff teaching there in what might be deemed unsuitable buildings, the WLFS could become undersubscribed as the other schools including Acton High become more popular?

This could bring about a scenario where local children are designated the WLFS against their parents wishes because of insufficient places in the existing schools. Not having the safety net of a new school under LEA control which meets certain criteria could bring about a divisive situation which would be avoided if there was an alternative maintained, rather than Free, school in the area.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 06/01/2011 - 22:31

I thought the West London Free School wasn't going to be in Ealing or Acton now?!

Laura McInerney's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 21:37

Again Toby, I think this is a measured response given that looming place deficts have been woefully addressed in the last few years right across London. That said, you mentioned that Ealing needs some 3-4,000 new places in the next few years. Is there somewhere that I can find this information? Because the evidence I've seen doesn't stack up to this.

In the most recent School Place Planning in Ealing -- admittedly from 2008 but given that the Tories have cancelled the release of the CYPs in Spring 2011 this year there will be no new data -- the first deficits occurred in 2009/10 for reception classes. These deficits were marginal in the first year (approx 70 places across the Borough), and that deficit won't hit secondary schools until the year 2016/17. So why a Free School now, when it isn't needed in the life-time of this Parliament? (details are here:

Even stranger, Ealing was going to expand 17 of its high schools and build a new school under BSF. This would amply have solved the deficit issue, all within time of the crisis. (Details here: Yet, this was cancelled? (Though 650 places are being made at 2 schools going ahead under BSF, which does head off much of the deficit places from 2018 onwards -- as there is only a 2-year peak 2016/17/18 that needs to be covered more widely).

I'm genuinely not trying to be difficult, I've said publicly many times that I think Free Schools helping patch deficit places is one of the times I think the schools are defensible. I really want to believe that is the intention here, but I just don't have the evidence.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sat, 08/01/2011 - 21:55

Also -- just for the record on this -- I don't think it is necessarily true that only white middle class parents send their children to traditional schools. My school, in East London, predominantly serves non-white communities and we find the parents are largely very traditional with a focus on english, maths and science above all else.

What I would say is more problematic about a rigid curriculum is that children are not all alike, and simply because their parents value thos subjects doesn't mean they will too nor that they should. Students have many talents that should be valued and are valuable, i.e. good money can be made from those skills if cultivated. Narrow curricula don't provide children an opportunity to find or value those skills and I think that is a waste of potential. There's nothing 'white' about the curriculum of West London Free School, but it is unnecessarily dogmatic.

Laurence Marshall's picture
Thu, 01/09/2011 - 18:00

Toby, I know I'm a bit late to this debate, but why not Drayton Manor? It teaches Latin, and somewhat 'classical' in its' outlook.

Mary's picture
Tue, 20/09/2011 - 16:53

I agree wholeheartedly with the article.

Two years ago my husband and I were in the position of trying to find a school for my daughter in West London and like most parents we were keen to choose the best possible school for her.

As we had recently moved to East Acton from Hampstead I was unfamiliar with the schools in the local boroughs (Hammersmith and Fulham) and in Ealing. Rather than rely solely on the stats and league tables, we visited all the secondary schools within a reasonable travelling distance and Acton High was almost an afterthought as it was a bus ride away. However on visiting we were struck by the warm and welcoming atmosphere and the open and transparent way in which older pupils were given free reign to guide prospective parents around the school, entering class rooms as we pleased which incidentally all had a calm and constructive atmosphere. To cut a long story short, the school exceeded our expectations and we chose to send our daughter there - where she is very happy and doing exceedingly well academically.

The moral of the story is - never have contmpt prior to investigation - you may miss a great opportunity!

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