Toby versus Zadie: cuts are fine as long I'm not denied £12m for my vanity school

Francis Gilbert's picture
I woke up today to hear Toby Young talking about the necessity of cuts to public services. He was replying to a talk on the Today Programme given by Zadie Smith, the talented, prize-winning novelist. She is campaigning for her local library in Kensal Rise, London to stay open. More than 450 libraries and mobile services across the country are at risk of closure, as councils react to government spending cuts. Toby has blogged about his reply for the Telegraph. His basic point is that the spending cuts are not too bad -- only 3% acccording to his estimates -- and that people should volunteer to work in libraries. Of course, this isn't the real story; the cuts have hit the poorest boroughs the worst. My own council, Tower Hamlets, is facing 9% cuts in expenditure, with £72m needed to be cut in three years; some of the poorest people in the UK live here and yet it's facing far worse cuts than the Tory shires. Toby said that only middle-class people use the libraries. This isn't true in TH: the Ideas Stores cater for people from all backgrounds, offering not only books to borrow, but internet facilities, advice centres, a cafe, DVDs, clubs and all sorts. I was in the Whitechapel one the other day: it is full of people from very different backgrounds, most of them are not remotely "middle class".

What TY didn't say, of course, is that all these cuts are OK, but I'm not sure if he'd be too happy if a few million was shaved off the capital expenditure for his "exclusive" West London Free School, which seems to have been used primarily as a "publicity" vehicle for Toby so far.

This government really does seem to be taking public money from the poor and giving to the rich.
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Natacha Kennedy's picture
Sat, 02/04/2011 - 09:12

Of course the kids, presumably including his kids, going to his school, are all unlikely to need to get books out of libraries to learn to read. Most other kids won't be in that position however. Hypocrisy in action from Toby Young.

Toby Young is the personification of what Diane Ravitch described as the way education is being turned into an individual personal 'service' rather than a public good for which we all have responsibility.

A great video to watch (in 3 parts; takes an hour) is this one by Diane Ravitch last month in America.

They have had Toby Young's schools, and plenty of other things his ilk favour for many years in the US, Diane Ravitch details their many failings...

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 02/04/2011 - 13:15

I think even Eric Pickles admits that local councils are facing 27% cuts to their budgets, all front loaded. This last point isn't made often enough. As Lady Eaton , Tory leader of the Local Government Association, pointed out this week, if councils had more time to plan they could make innovative changes that wouldn't risk slashing local services in the way we are currently seeing. If cuts must be made, they should be spread more evenly over the next four years but that might interrupt the Coalition's cynical plan to cut taxes just before the next election. Hopefully the public won't be fooled.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 02/04/2011 - 14:58

“Cuts – I see no cuts”. This was Toby Young reply to Zadie Smith. And in one sense he’s right. Spending will fall back in real cash terms to 2008/9 levels by the end of this Parliament. This makes the cuts seem modest. However, we need some perspective. Public sector expenditure has only been cut in real terms on four occasions since 1967, and has not fallen in three consecutive years during this time. Essential investment which would have taken place will not materialise, while at the same time spending will be reduced over consecutive years. So we are heading for an unprecedented era of reduction in public sector expenditure. Even the OECD, while recognising that budget consolidation is essential, says that “Economic recovery and job creation would both benefit from smaller-than-planned cuts in public investment.”

Despite his organisation being in receipt of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money Toby Young says he’s joining a rally to protest against the national debt. Perhaps he hasn’t realised that since 1975 it’s been usual for all UK Governments to run up a debt. Also the debt can’t be looked at in isolation from Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For example, in the first ten years of the Labour government the debt rose from £352 billion to £514 billion (Boo!) but as a share of GDP it fell from 42.5% to 36.2% (Cheers!). Since the crisis our debt is projected to be 59% of GDP (Yikes!) but still lower than the G7 average of 70.1%. While the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that Labour could have done more to reduce the debt the OECD recognises that “a broad based recovery started in end-2009” ie during the last year of Labour’s tenure.

The OECD says: there should be “a fair sharing of the social costs of the crisis… protecting the weakest should be a priority”. Yet this Government’s policy of using spending cuts rather than tax revenue to reduce the deficit (a ratio of 80:20 for cuts to tax increases) reduces the equitable sharing of social costs and hurts the most vulnerable.


Andy Smithers's picture
Sat, 02/04/2011 - 16:54

This site is totally obsessed with Toby Young and the WLFS - get over it.
The school is happening and will soon be a local school providing an education for hundreds of local children every year.

I thought this site supported local schools for local children. Or do you only support local school those that agree with your beliefs?

Toby and his WFFS school are not responsible for the defecit or the cuts.

Time to change the record if you ever want people to take your views seriously.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 02/04/2011 - 17:40

I have been through all the recent posts on this site and only one relates to this school. Just looking at the past week I can see that we have covered a number of other issues that are of interest to many parents, admissions, school capital funding , a range of other government announcements and Francis has helpfully started putting up videos to help students.
However since there are only a handful of free schools opening this year and only one or two have been given final approval, it is inevitable that they will attract attention, especially if their founders chart their experiences relentlessly in the press.
I am not sure I would class a school with a five mile catchment area as 'local'.

Andy Smithers's picture
Sat, 02/04/2011 - 17:53

Perhaps you missed the thread on the Parental Survey which showed that the the majority of parents were strongly in favour of Free Schools and Academies.

This also has turned into an anti WLFS thread with the usual rhetoric and twisting of peoples views.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 02/04/2011 - 18:09

Clearly people feel strongly about the subject of free schools. However we appear to be publishing a range of views and of course did draw attention to this survey in the first place.

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Sat, 02/04/2011 - 20:32

Andy - allow me to share lessons from my own experience as a local anti-academy campaigner. ...
When parents are asked "would you like the head of your school to have more autonomy over the running of schools and budget?" they say a resounding "yes".
You could take this as a thumbs up to academies and free schools.
But if you ask "are you in favour of your schools becoming less accountable to the public, privatised, and with pay and conditions for teachers removed?" guess what they say then....
I have tonight spoken to a school governor who has contacted me out of nowhere. His school is going through conversion now - the governing body has already voted in favour. Thus he should have had all of the facts laid bare to him. Yet he says that he has learnt more about the truth behind academies from one hour on the phone to me than in all of the governors meetings put together!
Can you not see that people can only properly approve when they have a full range of facts? And on academies and free schools, the truth is not always fully out there.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/04/2011 - 10:35

It is unfortunate that the DfE is used as a marketing campaign for free schools and academies with numerous links to people saying how wonderful they are. Links to praise for local authority schools are non existent. The problem is compounded by the ability of schools who wish to convert to do the bare minimum of consultation, thereby silencing any possible opposition because people don't know it's happening. There should at least be a legal requirement to consult widely: parents, staff, local people, relevant unions and the local authority. Then people would receive the full facts.

On this site there is a post from a governor who resigned when he found the trustees had behaved in an undemocratic manner. There is a further one about the problems which could arise when chains of schools are under the control of private organisations. And yet another about undisclosed plans by Lincolnshire to convert en masse all local primaries. I think if parents knew the full facts about academies they would be very worried indeed.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/04/2011 - 10:55

Andy Smithers is correct when he says that Toby Young and the West London Free School are not responsible for the cuts. Neither are the schools whose budgets are being reduced; or the members of the public who will bear the brunt of these cuts. Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is going towards free schools - money which would be better spent on existing schools.

The Government's policy for budget consolidation has resulted in the poor and vulnerable being hardest hit. Channel 4 Fact Blog showed that councils which are dependent largely on central government funding (ie the ones serving impoverished areas) will suffer more than councils who receive most of their revenue from council tax.

The Rally Against Debt which Toby Young is attending claims to be: "A well mannered, polite rally for civilised people who don’t wish to see their hard earned money being spent on pointless government initiatives."

I would include free schools in this category. Public services are being cut - this is not a time to promote expensive innovations which benefit only a tiny number of people.

Toby Young's picture
Sun, 03/04/2011 - 15:55


The choice isn't between spending money on free schools or spending money on existing schools. We're in the midst of a population boom and we need more school places, particularly in West London. Free schools are a cost effective way of delivering those places if you compare the capital costs of setting them up to the costs of creating schools under the previous government. Under BSF, the average new secondary school cost between £25m and £30m. Whatever the final cost of the WLFS, it will be significantly less than that – probably less than 50%. One of the reasons the cost will be so low is because a group of about 15 of us have been devoting our labour to the project for free – and it would be nice if that fact was acknowledged occasionally on this site.

When I debated Francis about this on the Today programme he suggested that expanding existing schools would be a more cost effective way of delivering the much needed additional places. But that's not necessarily true. Had Ealing Council received its expected £300m in BSF investment, for instance, it was planning to spend £75m expanding its existing secondary estate by five-and-a-half forms of entry – a more expensive way of providing additional places than sticking up a new build. The other thing to bear in mind about Francis's suggestion is that it wouldn't be popular with teachers or parents, as we know from the reaction when local authorities try and expand existing primary schools by adding temporaries to playgrounds.

One final point: It's not a zero sum game. As soon as the James Review is published, a capital budget for refurbishing the existing school estate will be announced.

So you're wrong to claim free schools are a needless extravagance and wrong to say they'll take money away from existing schools.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 03/04/2011 - 17:15

I think this last point about taking money away from existing schools really does depend on whether there is a demonstrable need for new places. If there are already surplus places, capital funding should go to existing schools and it will be very interesting to see whether the James process allows for this sort of prioritisation or whether it will simply allow Gove to spend the money wherever he wants. Moreover if there are surplus places, free schools may well also take revenue funding away from existing schools. Alternatively the free schools may find themselves undersubscribed, a real possibility given the thin evidence proposers are required to produce ( although the new requirements appear to be more rigorous). I believe one of the new free primary schools is already halving its proposed size because it didn't have enough first choice applications to fill all the places for this September. Either way, that is not an efficient use of public funds in the current circumstances.

Sarah's picture
Sun, 03/04/2011 - 17:12

Toby - as you very well know the capital funding for free schools has been found by cutting ICT funding for schools from the Harnessing Technology fund in 2010/11. The funding for 2011/12 has only been found at the expense of ending the BSF programme (which was not the principle mechanism for responding to the need for additional school places) and reducing the availability of schools capital by 60% on average - including the ending of the Primary Capital Programme. Local authorities which were not in the BSF programme had to find capital for additional school places from basic need funding, not from BSF and those authorities used traditional procurement methods not necessarily the long winded and bureaucratic BSF process - so your argument that free schools are cheaper does not stand up to scrutiny because you are not comparing like with like. In fact many authorities needing to provide additional places would sooner increase the size of additional schools then create new ones, a far more cost effective method of using capital than creating a new school - and subsequently a more cost effective use of revenue funding too. The comment you make about temporary units is a red herring since it is possible to increase the size of existing schools through permanent buildings quite satisfactorily and at reasonable cost. Added to which many free school applications are to provide additional school places in areas which do not need extra places because pupil rolls are still falling and where extra places will not be needed for many years even if planned housing developments do advance (which is very unlikely in the current housing market).

If new school places ARE needed in an area then surely the most appropriate way to decide where they should be is for the local authority which has the statutory duty to provide adequate places to strategically plan and provide them in relation to an area as a whole, not for parents or others to make a decision about location which may suit them but may not be what the area as a whole requires - indeed the decisions about location of free school appears to have more to do with the home addresses of the proposers and the availability of sites than any sense of being strategically planned to suit the needs of all children in the area.

You are in a very weak position to be arguing about costs in any event since we are not permitted to know the true capital costs of the free school policy, the government having refused to give information about the costs of site acquisition, consultants fees and refurbishment costs for those free schools currently under consideration.

The James Review is widely expected to restrict funding to existing maintained schools to basic need and capital maintenance only with the big strategic money being centralised to ensure it's available for Academies and Free Schools. It's very clear that the Free School policy is most certainly taking funding away from existing schools since capital funding is limited and should be focussed on existing schools which have massive backlog maintenance issues to deal with. Existing schools have had their devolved capital cut by 80%. There is absolutely no sign that the government's replacement for BSF will do anything to address the needs of existing schools and every indication it will simply operate as a further financial bribe for schools to become Academies and to enable more Free Schools to be established.

I am equally certain that the other schools in the area adjacent to your new school will not share your view that your gain is no loss to them.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Mon, 04/04/2011 - 07:48

The entire policy on free schools has, at least until now, focussed on the soliciting and provision of new schools rather than look into whether concentrated investment into the expansion of and consolidation of existing schools provided a better outcome. There are many existing sites which are of low density, not in great condition, and don't make good use of the site, therefore making the most of those sites, considering that land is the scarcest and less flexible resource,seems to be the best option for both improving the existing provision, ensuring that its sustainable for years to come, and meets future expansion needs. Toby's BSF example is only one of many whereas outside the main BSF programme and in the Primary Capital Programme there are and have been many other examples where consolidation is on the cards. There will be less money to go round in the future hence astute space and layout planning will be the more cost effective way forward. Toby should know that the start up admin and organisation costs of setting up a new school are huge and he doesn't seem to have factored this element into his previous answers.

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