Toby Young savages the creative teaching techniques that enable teachers like me to get great results

Francis Gilbert's picture
Having completed a post on whether it is "dumbed down" to modernise Shakespeare, and whether free schools like the West London Free School would allow such "innovative" teaching techniques, Toby Young responded with this Telegraph blog.

He asks some enraged questions:

"Does he rate his own powers of composition so highly that he thinks he can rewrite Shakespeare’s dialogue to make it more “lively”? Does he really have so little faith in his pupils that he thinks they’ll be quite unable to grasp Shakespeare’s language in the original?  I think it’s safe to say that, yes, this is “dumbing down” and, no, we won’t be doing it at the WLFS."

Actually, he's got the wrong end of the stick on both counts here. I didn't "re-write" Shakespeare's dialogue, my pupils did. Secondly, my pupils spent a considerable time studying the original: reading it, answering quizzes on it, responding to comprehension questions, doing hangman with key words. Then, they had a go at "modernising" the dialogue, the settings, the characters, and the overall plot. So they knew it well. It's a tried and tested technique which the Royal Shakespeare Company use with their own actors. By happy co-incidence there was a great Radio 4 documentary on this very issue this week. The RSC modernise Shakespeare in rehearsal time because it is an "active" way of helping their actors learn what the play is really about and helps them bring it into the modern day.  I think Toby Young doesn't realise that when Shakespeare wrote his plays, his language was "contemporary" at the time. Many scholars find it difficult to understand without "translating" parts of it. He complains that I don't get my students to understand Shakespeare as it is written, but this is exactly what this exercise does! The pupils really engage with the text and the meanings of the words in a way they never do when being lectured at.

Toby goes on to complain: "Gilbert clearly believes he’s doing the children in his care a favour by dumbing-down Shakespeare in this way. In fact, by refusing to stretch them, not only is he ensuring they’ll never get into a good university, he’s depriving them of the hugely enriching experience of being able to understand and appreciate Shakespeare in the original."

Well, this is simply not true. Firstly, my pupils do study Shakespeare in the original (something I believe is very clear in the video) and secondly, I have very high expectations of my pupils -- and the vast majority of them achieve exceptionally good results. Last year, a 100%  of my Year 11 class gained A*-C grades in English and English Literature, and my A Level results in English were through the roof. Seventy percent attained A grades, and my value-added score (the amount of extra value I add to my students) was among the highest in the country. Nearly all of my A Level students went on to top universities. No doubt if the WFLS pupils do this, we'll be hearing about it morning, noon and night, but I'm only saying it here to correct a fundamental error in Toby's blog.

Do you want to know why my students did well, Toby? They were actively engaged in the lessons; they found them interesting. They covered curriculum content in ways which really motivated them. I'm certainly not alone; there are thousands of teachers all over the country trying their best to stimulate their pupils day in and day out in state schools. I've met loads of great teachers and gained ideas like "modernising" Shakespeare from them. These creative teaching techniques are not "dumbed down": they are the opposite. They require high levels of cognitive skills.

But I am not the first victim of Toby's ill-informed wrath; there have been plenty before me, and no doubt many more to come. Why are you denigrating us all in the national media with your specious and unsubstantiated opinions? Why do you never tell us the overwhelmingly good news about our state schools today?

I really am concerned for the pupils at WFLS and, by extension, at free schools throughout the country. Ignoramuses like Toby Young are being allowed carte blanche to impose their redundant educational ideas on our children at the taxpayer's expense. At WFLS, it's already clear that celebrating sexual diversity is completely off the cards, as are any attempts to make lessons creative and "child-centred". Innovation is out, and drudgery is the order of the day. So much for them being "free" schools: Toby Young's school sounds more like a mental prison than a place to explore the human intellect.

We know your approach doesn't work, Toby; it was tried out in the 1950s and it failed. If you want to read an excellent book on the matter, look at Adrian Elliot's State Schools Since The 1950s -- The Good News.
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H & F Parent's picture
Wed, 06/04/2011 - 20:51

a) Toby Young is not a teacher
b) that is all

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 06/04/2011 - 21:14

"If you want to read an excellent book on the matter, look at Adrian Elliot’s State Schools Since The 1950s — The Good News."

And if we wanted to read some books about how awful the state education system is, we could read books by, well, you.

Chairman of Selectors's picture
Wed, 06/04/2011 - 22:32

Gilbert, it is teachers like you who have utterly destroyed the teaching industry. Teaching kids is the last thing on your mind. You want to indoctrinate them. Your opposition to the WLFS is nothing to do with education. It is to do with your blinkered ideology. You should be ashamed. I weep for the children who have to sit through your pointless, dumbed down "media studies" nonsense, or whatever it is you claim to teach. Your photo itself, "trendy" spiked hair, thick set glass, side-on serious expression, drips with leftist indignation, entitlement and arrogance. Pathetic.

georgina emmanuel's picture
Wed, 06/04/2011 - 22:48

Francis, your passion, your creativity and your ability to design work for individual children to spark their interest and to lead them to an understanding (and probably, dare I say it, a love of) Literature speaks volumes. So, by the way, do your results!

Toby, I understand where you are coming from. I think all of us who teach Literature should love to present all the great writers in their original form and rejoice when our students enter into the complexities and share our delight. However, the reality is that many children across the globe, including the UK, come from families where there are no books and where there is no family tradition of reading. Many of these children just cannot get started on any literature, let alone Shakespeare! What do we do? We can plug on, try to be inspirational in teaching the original text and hope that some of the pupils will grasp the essence of Shakespeare. The reality is that unfortunately very few of the children do. And, sadly, the experience can be so far away from their own prior experience, that they land up hating with a passion what we are trying to teach them. So, we have to try and devise ways that begin with their own experience and gradually lead them to the authentic texts. This can be a complete revelation! I have had some incredible teaching experiences where pupils in lower sets have developed an absolute passion for literature and have gone on to score As in their GCSEs and As in their A levels. The gift of a teacher is to set the toughest toughest standards and never to compromise those. Every pupil will achieve if this is made perfectly clear.

I think that this is Francis's goal. It isn't really fair to criticise his obvious teaching skills because you don't share his political values. Francis does not advocate mediocrity. As a teacher myself I find your comments about 'dumbing down' really insulting.

Advocating improving community schools has never equated to advocating third rate education.

The problem is that providing excellent education for all is really expensive. Toby, you talked about an Eton for everyone or something along those lines. I certainly want to see an 'Eton' for everybody.

The problem with Free schools, as see it, is not what you plan to teach. It is in the admissions process. I don't think that anyone is convinced this can ever be fair given the flexibility you have to cherry pick pupils. I know you have high ideals but will these be shared once you have to face league tables? Will you, and, most importantly, your parents, be willing to take everyone including pupils with severe physical special needs, severe behavioural problems, severe learning difficulties and those who are severely traumatised because they have come from war torn countries? Toby, are you going to do that?

And, by the way, I understand you're going to take pupils who don't speak English? Please confirm that this is so and also that you are providing a specialist teacher for these pupils?

I think, Toby, that you have become so incensed with what you perceive as this site's hostility towards free schools that you are prepared to rubbish individual teachers who contribute their views on the grounds that they are in favour of mediocrity and 'dumbing down'. I cannot speak for others but I joined the site because I am afraid for pupils and what the future heralds under this government.

I was privately educated myself but I have worked in many parts of the globe. We all know that the biggest losers in politics are children. Free schools, as far as I can understand them, are a reaction to some of the terrible decisions different governments have made regarding education. There are some terrible schools out there.

georgina emmanuel's picture
Wed, 06/04/2011 - 22:55

As usual I've messed up with the submit button. sorry about my trypos.

Simon Maynard's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 06:42

Let us put to one side the efficacy or otherwise of your teaching methods. Your position appears to be that if a school, such as the WLFS, does not accept them, it is wrong and is harming its pupils. By extension, that school should be closed before it does further damage.

Toby Young may disagree with your teaching methods but he certainly does not suggest that they should be banned or that schools who adopt them should be closed. Indeed, as a supporter of free schools and thus of plurality and choice in education, it would be illogical for him to do so.

The debate over how to teach Shakespeare is merely emblematic of a wider question: do you believe that children will benefit from and that parents desire choice in education and that that they should have a right to provide it where the state has failed or do you believe that the state should have a monopoly on educational provision regardless of childrens' interests.

If, on the specific question of Shakespeare, pupils and parents do not respond well to the teaching methods proposed by the WLFS, it seems a fair assumption that the school will adapt and reform them. If it does not, it is liable to lose pupils. More likely, however, is that some parents will favour such an approach, whilst others will not. The latter will continue to send their children to schools such as yours but the former will be grateful for an alternative.

This pattern is likely to be replicated across different topics and subjects but, in each case, a diversity of approaches will surely produce the best results - are you so confident that there is no room for improvement in our education system that you would deny parents and children the choice.

Toby Young's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 07:17

Congratulations on your good results, Francis, but even you must be aware that the reason more and more pupils get As at GCSE and A-level is because the exams keep getting easier. The real test of whether our state schools are improving is how our schoolchildren stack up against those in other countries – and by that measure there isn't much "good news". I hesitate to compare our PISA ranking in 2009 with our PISA ranking in 2000 since I know Janet will jump in and point out that the OECD has now disowned the 2000 data for the UK, but even the unreliable PISA data is more reliable than simply comparing GCSE and A-level results year on year which the last government was so fond of citing as "evidence" that our schools were "improving".

You're quite wrong if you think I'm in a position to prescribe how subjects are taught at the WLFS or, if I was, that I'd favour chalk and talk. Our motto is "traditional curriculum, radical pedagogy" and we'll leave it to the discretion of our heads of department as to how best to deliver what will be quite a challenging array of academic subjects. But I think it's unlikely that our head of English will want to "modernise" Shakespeare.

You're also quite wrong to say we won't celebrate diversity at the WLFS, including sexual diversity. We're in favour of all forms of diversity, including a diversity of schools within the state sector. We just wont take children out of lessons and have them make posters and banners and then pack them off to a demo to promote LGBT Month. As far as I'm aware, that's not mandatory in state schools.

I would much prefer not to spend my time defending the WLFS from the daily attacks launched from this website. As I've said before, I approached Fiona Millar at the beginning of last year and asked if she'd like to advise us on what admissions policy she thought would be fair, given her expertise on the subject. She wasn't interested and, to this day, I still don't know what the LSN's preferred admissions policy is. (Janet? Henry? Anyone?) Instead, she and her cronies have just relentlessly attacked the school.

I'm sure some of the bloggers on this site do genuinely care about promoting the best and fairest system of taxpayer-funded education and, in time, some of them may even come to accept free schools and academies as playing a valuable role in the overall pattern of provision, a position I'm pleased to see Andy Burnham is moving towards. But for Fiona and, I suspect, you Francis it's just about scoring cheap political points. If you want to call a truce I'd be delighted – but I'm not sure what you and Fiona would write about if you stopped attacking the WLFS.

I think in future you would be well-advised to keep your homemade videos off the site. The LSN is beginning to look more and more like a vehicle for you and Fiona to promote yourselves rather than a genuine discussion forum.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 07:38

Has anyone else noticed that when pupils in independent or selective schools get great exam results, it is down to their hard work and excellent teaching. When pupils in state schools get great results, it is because the exams have got easier. By the way Toby, Francis and I don't need to use this site to promote ourselves. You are doing such a great job for us. Keep up the good work!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 10:51

Thanks Georgina for your comments, they do mean a lot. Results are certainly not everything, but I do believe good results can obtained by good, engaging teaching rather than "drilling". I really feel far too much awful teaching is going to happen in "free" schools because the founders just simply wouldn't know good teaching if it knocked them on the head -- as we have witnessed with Toby who has publicly denigrated a teaching technique which the RSC use!

Toby's comments are utterly contradictory. On the one hand, he says he is not going to "prescribe" and then does precisely that when he rules out modernising Shakespeare. I would urge you to think again Toby for the benefit of your teachers and your pupils.

Andy Smithers's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 11:48


could you give several examples, apart, from the WLFS, where you can justify your comment above about the awful teaching you feel will happen in Free Schools as the founders would not know good teaching if it knocked them on the head.

Your examples should name the Free Schools and all the founders who know nothing about good teaching.

Please start backing up your statements up with some facts.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 11:53

It is baffling why this video and Francis' comment provoked such an unwarranted and misguided attack in the first place.

If the arts are not to be "modernized" for a contemporary audience then they will just fossilize. Are contemporary settings of Shakespeare plays "dumbing down"? If you cut the text - is that dumbing down? Anna Nicole Smith immortalised in a new opera - is that dumbing down? I recall on television a few years ago a series of four Shakespeare plays re-written and "modernised" - Macbeth was a chef in a large kitchen. Well, David Tennent got a lot of kids into the theatre to see his Hamlet, the film of Romeo + Juliet got my own son interested in the original play and I know that the re-written Macbeth (such a thrilling story for a start) got a lot of people (not just kids) curious about reading or seeing the original. But then I suppose to snobs a guided tour of the Globe theatre would be beyond the pale.

The whole point of Shakespeare is that the language, the themes, the profound psychological developments of the characters are universal and infinite. They are "modern" and the best teaching of Shakepeare is when the teacher can demonstrate that the plays are not fossilized in Elizabethan ruffles but living and breathing around them today.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 13:57

I want a good local school for all children then there would be no need to have admissions policies. I would also like to have a fully state-funded and fully-comprehensive system, like in Finland.

However, I recognise this is England (I'm not going to discuss Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland because their systems are different). In England we have a history of established independent schools. We have a small number of private schools alongside state schools which cater for the majority. I can live with that.

However, what I object to is the perceived superiority of some schools over others. The free school movement is built on the preposition that independent is better than state. This judgement appears to be upheld by looking at examination league tables. However, all the league tables demonstrate is the quality of a school's intake. Also, if a school describes itself as comprehensive then it should provide a curriculum which is suitable for all. I also believe that GCSEs are easier - but that's not to detract from the teaching of Shakespeare that is being discussed.

But enough of admission policies and inflated exam grades. Back to Shakespeare - much more interesting. Some of my fondest memories of teaching were when the pupils studied him. Yells of "Cry God for Harry, England and St George!" sometimes resulted in other teachers thinking there was a riot. And Romeo and Juliet - my favourite. Yes, we engaged with the text, but we also, as Francis is doing, updated the play which led to discussions about sectarian violence and how prejudice handed down from parents can lead to the deaths of their children.

My favourite memory - Midsummer Night's Dream with bottom set year 7. They acted the scene where the mechanicals decide who will play which character in their drama. One boy got so excited he wanted to play all the parts, just like Bottom. The pupils also coloured and cut out models of The Globe. (Colouring! Cutting out! Surely this is dumbing-down?). But the day afterwards one of the pupils ran up to me and shouted, "I saw the Globe last night on telly, Miss!"

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 14:02

Chairman of Selectors: your parody of extreme right-wing fulminating was spot on. The hyperbole, the personal attack, the emotive language, the prejudice - all were there. I could almost feel the spittle.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 18:01

Janet, your memories of Shakespeare are great. Yes, you're absolutely right, it's all about acting out the words (which incidentally I do a lot of too!) and making students see the dynamic relevance in the drama.

Toby Young's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 23:25


The answer to your questions about which applicants we'll admit is that we'll simply apply our over-subscription criteria and they are completely blind when it comes to whether a child has Special Educational Needs, English as an Additional Language, is eligible for Free School Meals, etc. You can see our admissions policy in full here:

Petra Richardson's picture
Wed, 08/06/2011 - 17:06

Do all state schools have to teach 'the creative curriculum' and use a cross-curricular approach? I ask because I don't have the money to go private and I would like my children to learn something! The idea that children can choose what they learn at primary level is absurd. No wonder private schools are offering igcses - the GCSEs are so easy now. Hey ho, as long as the state sector can prove to Ofsted that there is 'social cohesion' in their school, why should it matter of the children learn anything or not?

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