Festival of Education report: Toby Young unleashes a blizzard of statistics but loses the moral argument

Francis Gilbert's picture
“So you’re on our side, are you, Francis?” Toby Young said to me in the sunlit garden of the headmaster’s lodge at Wellington College, which is hosting The Sunday Times Education Festival. It was the first time I’d met him face-to-face, although he and I have been corresponding through blogs and emails for some time. Toby has been following the debate on the site about my decision to support my local secondary school for Academy status and seemed to indicate that this meant I was pro-Free Schools now. I’m not sure this necessarily follows. FYI: I am not about to set up a Free School in opposition to my local school! I’m trying to support it as best I can to improve and deal with the difficult situation it’s in (see previous posts on this).

I said that I did hope to find common ground with Toby and the Free Schoolers, but that ultimately, I believed that co-operation between schools was the best way forward. Needless to say, I was a somewhat lone voice at that point in the Headmaster’s garden because I was surrounded by some fairly "right-wing" characters: Joel Klein who set up New York charter schools, Rachel Wolf of the New Schools Network, the ex-High Master of St Pauls and a host of businessmen (yes, largely men) wanting to offer their services to schools. The only remotely left-wing people were me (well, some would dispute that I am!) and Adrian Elliott, ex-headteacher, inspector and author. Hardly, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Later on, the inimitable Francis Beckett turned up and told me that we were the “token lefties”; and I felt he had a point. A cynic might say we’d been given little “bit parts” to spice up what really amounted to a constant stream of eulogies about the private sector.

At my event, Independent or Maintained: What is the Future of Schools?, Toby Young did his normal cut and paste job with various statistics, telling us what a terrible job state school teachers are doing and how marvelous private schools are. Rachel Wolf was a little more varied; she tried to say that free schools were serving poor students (in response to my citation of the Channel 4 Fact Check’s finding that only 2 of the free schools actually serve deprived students) and that schools needed to be closed down if they failed.

Adrian Elliott was very good at defending the record of Local Authority schools, pointing out that 90% of parents according to Ofsted are happy with them, and that, by and large, they are doing a good job.  He made the crucial point: who actually helps out Free Schools if there’s a fire or a major crisis? He recollected always have a great deal of help from his LA when he was headteacher if there was a crisis. I gave a talk about the perils of social segregation and the high costs of Free Schools.

For me, the questions that Rachel and Toby just couldn’t answer properly were:

  • The capital cost of free schools, which according to the Telegraph could amount to as much as 1 billion, when existing schools are facing a huge repair bill.

  • The lack of accountability and where these schools turn to if the Free Schools go wrong. Neither of them suggested central government would be ready to rescue schools in difficulties.

  • The  social segregation caused by faith and special interest groups setting up more schools and "creaming off" children with specific backgrounds.

My regret is that Adrian and I didn’t have a chance to discuss the nuts and bolts of teaching – something that far too few free schoolers actually have experience of. There seems to be the naïve belief that if a group wants to set up a school and they’re very keen, then everything will be hunky dory even if they’re completely inexperienced and untrained. Well, we will have to see. It’s not easy running a successful school, particularly if it has a challenging intake.

The final question to the panel was about whether faith groups should be able to set up schools. Rachel and Toby were both quite keen. Adrian was a bit ambivalent because he’d been the head of a Catholic school. But I am unequivocal: we have storing up so many more social problems for ourselves if have schools that full of particular faith groups. You only have to look at Oldham, at Northern Ireland, to see what happens when our children do not get to know other children from different backgrounds. We already have segregated schools, but the Free Schools policy, if not regulated very carefully, is going to make things far, far worse. The consequences of it are potentially disastrous.

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Sarah Dobbs's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 05:21

Francis -
a) "Adrian Elliott was very good at defending the record of Local Authority schools, pointing out that 90% of parents according to Ofsted are happy with them, and that, by and large, they are doing a good job. He made the crucial point: who actually helps out Free Schools if there’s a fire or a major crisis? He recollected always have a great deal of help from his LA when he was headteacher if there was a crisis.

b)... "The lack of accountability and where these schools turn to if the Free Schools go wrong. Neither of them suggested central government would be ready to rescue schools in difficulties."

Francis - I am curious as to why you think these are problems for Free Schools but not for your child's own school converting to academy status?
The same thinking does and will apply to both. In fact, I would argue that a school going for academy status without a major sponsor (as I thinnk is the case with your son's school) will be more vulnrable to the kinds of issues faced in point "a" about losing the support of the local authority, than an academy who has the support of a major education type.
Is it not true that privatisation is privatisation, no matter how big or small the packaging?

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 07:27

The latest dissenting voice to the concept of academies and free schools is Professor Alan Smithers ( is he any relation to Smithers who posts on here) of the private Buckingham University, and an educational advisor, who you would have expected to endorse the free market system on which the gov't is embarking.

He doesn't see the extending patchwork styles of schools as fitting into a coherent system and thinks there could be logistical difficulties of parents finding their child a place when they get to school age.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 13:28

I quote Toby Young's words on this site: "Both sides in this debate are quick to cite evidence that they believe supports their position, but there are two problems with this approach. The first is that both sides can cite equally compelling evidence to support their viewpoint and undermine their opponents’; the second is that all the evidence is contested. In the end, the citing of evidence becomes little more than a rhetorical device. Fundamentally, the disagreement is ideological."

Young says that evidence can be disregarded because it is used by both sides to undermine the other. Both sides offer “equally compelling” evidence, he says. However, decisions have to be made and they need to be made on the quality of the evidence. Quality can be decided on the source of the evidence – data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for example, will carry more weight than information from a vested interest group; a peer-reviewed paper will be more reliable than one person’s hunch. The evidence also needs to be quoted correctly - no cherry-picked phrases, or distorted data. It must also exist. It is very easy for a speaker to say something like, “Research suggests…” or “The OECD confirms…” when research or the OECD did no such thing. An example of this was Toby Young and Nick Gibb both saying that the OECD had found that British independent education was the best in the world. I have asked both of these gentlemen for a link to the OECD evidence but I have received no reply. In the absence of a reply I can only assume that there is no evidence.

“All evidence is contested” - see my comment above about the different weight given to evidence from different sources.

“Citing of evidence becomes little more than a rhetorical device.” This is a cynical attitude towards evidence. Imagine a Court of Law where the Judge said to the Barristers, “You have contested each other’s evidence, and I conclude it is mere oratory. Therefore I direct members of the Jury to judge the case according to their own prejudices.”

The disagreement may be “ideological”, but an argument must be based on quality evidence from a trusted source, correctly quoted and, in the case of written arguments, links to the source material itself.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 18:48

Thanks Sarah for your comment. Maybe I'm wrong but I don't think my son's school is being privatised. No private company is taking over it. I take your point about lack of support from the LA, that's got to be weighed up against the problems of lack of funding, the issues with admissions that staying in the LA mean. I feel pretty torn about this, it's a very difficult situation. I still feel it's committed to being an all-inclusive, local school -- something that many free schools simply are not.

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 06:04

There was a few weeks in the campaign in Louth where I could see the benefits to a co-operative, mutualised trust for the schools in Louth. However, when looking it at more closely the future lack of local political accountability worried me. Then the was the factor about local authorities. And then, on top of that, a concern that with that model, the school will have to heavily rely on groups of parents/teachers/etc who are willing and able to commit to the school in a VERY active way. Over time, this will clearly fluctuate and lead to potential instability and make the future of the school unstable. It does sound tempting, but I am not sure of the reality. I think it is a bit like camping - the outdoor life, all that fresh air sounds so lovely. But by the time you have taken your 3 year old across a muddy field to use the loo for the 4th time in a night you realise how gritty the reality can be!!

Toby Young's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 22:22

Okay, Janet, let's stick to the facts. In the 2009 PISA survey, it says the following: "On average across OECD countries, privately managed schools display a performance advantage of 30 score points on the PISA reading scale (in the United Kingdom even of 62 score points)." In the table ranking different countries according to how good their 15-year-old schoolchildren are at reading, the UK is 25th with 494 points. If you add 62 points, that would bring the UK's score up to 556, making it joint top alongside Shanghai, China.

If you look at all three tables (reading, sciences, maths), the UK is ranked below Poland when it comes to reading, below Estonia when it comes to sciences and below Slovakia when it comes to maths – and this in spite of the UK government spending considerably more per capita on schoolchildren than Poland, Estonia and Slovakia. It's all very well for Adrian Elliott to cite Ofsted data on parental satisfaction, but the UK is not performing well when the attainment of our schoolchildren is measured against those of other countries, certainly not as well as they should be given the size of the UK's education budget. That is indisputable.

Another indisputable fact is that the gap between the state sector and the independent sector is growing ever larger. Over the last 13 years, the attainment gap at A-level between state schools and independent school has doubled. In 2010, A-level candidates at independent schools were three times more likely to get straight As than candidates at state schools – and that bald statistic flatters the state sector because it includes grammar schools. If you remove grammars from the equation, only 10,802 children got three As at A-level in Britain last year, compared to 12,000 pupils at independent schools. In other words, more children got three As in the country’s tiny handful of fee-paying schools than in the entire population of children at comprehensives.

Defenders of comprehensives will no doubt claim that this variance is entirely due to the socio-economic circumstances of the pupils, but if that's the case how do you explain the success of ARK and Harris academies? In particular, how do you explain the success of Mossbourne Community Academy? 40% of the pupils at Mossbourne receive free school meals, yet 82% got five GCSEs at grade C or above in 2010, including Maths and English. If there's really such a strong link between socio-economic background and pupil performance, why does Stoke Newington School get below average GCSE results (49% getting five GCSEs at grade C or above, including Maths and English) with only 27% receiving free school meals?

Francis, you seem to be suffering from a selective memory. Until a fortnight ago, you were adamantly opposed to both free schools and academies. Your position was identical to Fiona Millar's, Henry Stewart's and the Anti-Academies Alliance's – you believed all taxpayer-funded secondary schools should be under LEA control. To claim, as you're now doing, that because you're still opposed to free schools you've remained consistent is laughable. The argument on this site has always been between those who support free schools and academies and those who oppose them. You've now parted company with your ideological allies (for which I applaud you).

As for your claim that Channel 4's FactCheck discovered that only two of the free schools likely to open this year are in England's most deprived areas, that's false. Here's what FactCheck had to say: "FactCheck found however that of the 24 schools in the pipeline to open this year, nine rank in the top 50 per cent better-off areas in England." It follows from this that 15 of them rank in the bottom 50 per cent worse-off areas. By my reckoning that's approximately 3/5ths, i.e. a majority.

I accept that Adrian Elliott made some good points about the risks free schools will face in virtue of not being able to call on the assistance of LEAs. What if our school goes into the red, for instance. With no Local Authority to bail us out, can we depend on the DfE to do so? Uncertain. But as Sarah Dodds points out, all the risks Adrian Elliott highlighted – and which you've helpfully linked to in a video of his speech – also apply to academies. I assume that because you're supporting BGTC's bid for academy status you've weighed those risks and concluded, on balance, that facing them is preferable to being controlled by a Children's Services Department led by a member of the Respect Party. There are ways of mitigating all the risks Adrian highlighted and, if you'd like to take this offline, I can tell you how the West London Free School is addressing them.

As I've said in earlier comments on this site, your side has lost the argument. The academy conversion rate has reached critical mass, between 12 and 20 free schools will open this September, a number that will likely increase to more than 100 in 2012, and a host of key Labour figures are now endorsing the Coalition's education reforms, including Tony Blair, Andrew Adonis, Maurice Glassman and Peter Hyman. I've no doubt the Anti-Academies Alliance will continue to campaign against people like me (and you now, of course), but that's because it's a front organisation for the Socialist Workers' Party. Do you really want to remain in bed with the SWP and Respect? If feels to me as if that's a decision you've already made.

If you and the regular posters on this site are genuinely worried about fairness, I think you're best bet is to stop attacking people setting up free schools, stop running down teachers who have decided to apply for academy status – 99% of whom just want good local schools to which all children have access, just like you – and focus on devising a voluntary code of practice that you believe all taxpayer-funded schools should sign up to, regardless of type.

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 22:53

With regard to disparity of A'level scores that occurs between independent schools and their state counterparts, many independent schools require an A or A* GCSE to enrol on that subject at A'level while the majority of 6th form colleges and comprehensive schools don't set that benchmark.

I can't help thinking that if a privately educated pupil who scored As and A*s in his/her GCSEs left to study A'levels in the state sector he/she should be capable of attaining top grades at A'level as well.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 07:55

Toby - I would be interested to know why you think voluntary Codes of Practice might work and why they shouldn't be compulsory? Evidence from the past suggests that unless there is an element of compulsion, they don't work.

Keith Turvey's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 08:04

Toby you're getting a reputation for filibustering in numerous forums now. Lots of questions you've left unanswered here that would be good to hear your answers too:


I too would like to know where we can access an English translation of this research that you've used to back up your assertions:

Tegle, S. (2010) ‘Påverkar förekomst av friskolor betygen i grundskolan? – En statistisk analys av samtliga elever i årskurs 9 år 2006’, Svenskt Näringsliv, Stockholm,retrieved 20 June 2010 (http:// http://www.svensktnaringsliv.se/material/rapporter/friskolorna-raddare-i... skolans-result_108196.html).

As for your most recent post above I don't have time to engage with it all but if this is the level of your critical analysis then I'm not inclined to either:

"As for your claim that Channel 4′s FactCheck discovered that only two of the free schools likely to open this year are in England’s most deprived areas, that’s false. Here’s what FactCheck had to say: “FactCheck found however that of the 24 schools in the pipeline to open this year, nine rank in the top 50 per cent better-off areas in England.” It follows from this that 15 of them rank in the bottom 50 per cent worse-off areas. By my reckoning that’s approximately 3/5ths, i.e. a majority."

Margins of 50% are a very blunt tool for looking at deprivation. Social scientists generally use the Index of multiple deprivation as the most reliable measure and research focusing on deprivation also tends to focus on the bottom 10%, 5%, 2% nationally. What % of free schools do you think are likely to be in the bottom 10% nationally I wonder? Your claim that 'it follows from this that 15 of them rank in the bottom 50 per cent worse-off areas' is completely meaningless.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 09:06

As ever, Toby very selective in your quotation. Fact Check also said this:
"In fact, of all the 24 schools FactCheck found only two schools in the poorest 10 per cent of England’s local authorities: Nishkam Free School and Art Atwood – both primary schools that together would offer 160 places in their first year of opening. The latter, a sister school to the Hindu Krishna-Avanti London, is one of seven religious Free Schools hoping to open this year – including the first publicly funded Sikh school in England."

You only have to look your own school -- which is surrounded by pockets of deprivation -- and a school like Canary Wharf College to realise that these schools don't reflect their local communities, with your school, by your own admission, admitting fewer FSM pupils than the Borough average, as does CWC I believe.

Personally, I don't see that I have an objection to Free Schools or Academies if they genuinely help poor children without damaging the prospects of other poor children as well. It's a fine balance. I haven't looked into Hyman's school yet, but if he's not "dregs sifting" and got local support, I'm not going to object. That's my personal view.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 09:14

Toby –

I believe ARK and Harris run 17 Academies between them. Add Mossbourne and that’s about 18. According to the DfE website, there are currently 704 open Academies, so I wonder why you think these few examples prove that Academies have the magic touch and can transform exam results? There have been quite a few well publicised Academy failures (a government quango had to bail out a number recently, one in a deprived area in the North-East, so it does not look as though all Academies have been able to be break the poverty/low attainment cycle) and I suspect that many Academies, especially those have recently converted, have not seen significant changes in results.

The fact is, it is far too early for you and the government to push or justify an “Academies model”. They are just a collection of diverse schools, many “Academized” virtually overnight, many of which do not yet deliver better results.

A voluntary Code of Practice is meaningless because, unless it is compulsory and enforceable, the people who govern schools can easily introduce unfair and even corrupt practices, especially when their schools are not accountable to the local authority and when a lack of transparency means that we are unable to read Funding Agreements. The lack of oversight and local accountability has meant that corruption in Charter Schools in America is widespread.

In recent years, there have been investigations in states, including California, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which found charter school CEOs taking money from their own schools, putting unqualified relatives on their payrolls and engaging in other questionable activities. Just this week, the same week that the government, yourself and Katherine Birbalsingh were promoting American Charters and entertaining the dubious Joel Klein at Wellington College, it was discovered that 19 out of 74 charter schools in Philadelphia are under investigation for fraud, financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest. This is hardly “fair” is it? If you really wanted to show how fair you and Free Schools are, you might want to start advocating for Funding Agreements to be published and campaigning for a compulsory and extensive Code of Conduct.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 09:47

Toby - you are correct in quoting the OECD as saying "On average across OECD countries, privately managed schools display a performance advantage of 30 score points on the PISA reading scale (in the United Kingdom even of 62 score points). This sentence is included in Section 53 on page 13 of "Viewing the United Kingdom School System through the prism of PISA". However, you do not quote the rest of the section:

"However, once the socio-economic background of students and schools is accounted for, public [publicly-funded] schools come out with a slight advantage of 7 score points, on average across OECD countries (in the United Kingdom public [publicly-funded] schools outscore privately managed schools by 20 score points once the socio-economic background is accounted for)".

I have provided the link to the evidence so readers can check:


So it would appear that UK state-funded schools outperform UK independent schools by 20 score points on the PISA reading scale once the socio-economic background is accounted for. Now you could argue that socio-economic background is irrelevant and schools should be judged on raw exam results only. Mr Gove thinks so - he has abolished the Contextual Value Added (CVA) score despite the fact that the OECD said CVA was a step in the right direction*. However, as Mike Kent, writing in the Times Educational Supplement (24 June 2011) writes:

"We're now told that future league tables will ignore pupils' deprivation, ethnicity and background factors because contextually value-added merely 'entrenches low aspirations for disadvantaged children'. What utter nonsense. Are we really saying that Jamil, who speaks virtually no English, has one uninterested parent and lives on a crumbling estate is as easy to educate as Cynthia, who lives with both parents in a nice semi-detached and has access to clever conversation, a range of media, and a pony."


You mention the Channel 4 FactCheck which said that 9 of the 24 free schools with approval or awaiting approval are in the top 50%, which would mean that 15 of the schools are in the bottom 50%. However, this doesn't give the whole picture. Dividing the country in half and then saying how many schools are in each half is a rather crude measure. What is of more importance is the number of free schools opening in the bottom 10% which is the sector which was supposed to benefit most from the free schools programme. The number of free schools with approval who are in this bottom 10% is none. The number of free schools awaiting approval who are in the most disadvantaged 10% is two. Again, I give the link so that readers can check.


I am concerned that Toby sees this debate as a battle which he sees his "side" as winning. Talk of battles in the context of children's education is unhelpful. Toby mentions the "critical mass" of academy conversions but this should not be viewed as a victory for one particular side. As I point out in my thread about the myths of academy conversion, academy status is not as advantageous as its supporters claim.


Finally, I am still waiting for a link to OECD evidence that British independent schools are the best in the world. As you know, I've asked for this link several times but it has not been provided. Unless, of course, the quotation which leads this post is supposed to prove the hypothesis. But, as I have shown and readers can check for themselves, it does not.

*Page 101 Reforming Education in England,OECD Economic Surveys 2011, not freely available on the internet, but details of how to obtain a copy are available here:


Adrian Elliott's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 10:16

I enjoyed the visit to Wellington (apart from the heat! ) and found Toby and Rachel more congenial opponents than Peter Hitchens and Chris Woodhead with whom I did battle last year in Oxford. (Neither of them had bothered preparing anything which made for a rather bizarre encounter :they basically listened to what I had to say for over ten minutes, said it was rubbish and we all sloped off home )

Anyway, on to the key issue, which Francis has highlighted from my talk, of support for ‘independent’ state schools, be they academies or free schools.

I haven’t the slightest doubt, confirmed in conversation with Rachel and Toby in the train back to London, that Toby’s school will be able to call on more than sufficient help if a serious problem struck – just as Anthony Selsdon is hardly going to miss local authority support if some major calamity hit Wellington College . He already has, I guess, a huge network in place.

But what about some future free school in a poor part of South Shields or Hull or a remote area of Cumbria or Cornwall. I can’t see many city lawyers queueing up to do pro bono work for schools there. And bear in mind - and hear I do speak from experience - the support may have to be immediate, focused and above all reliable.

And as I mentioned it isn’t just about support for schools. Local authorities are castigated when children like Victoria Climbie fall through the net and whilst it’s true that many children involved in the worst cases never even reach school, its difficult to see how the weakening or even removal of LAs cannot make the situation worse.

Finally. some thoughts on PISA which seems to be the basis for so much of the argument for systemic failure in state education - partly because much of the other evidence, ignored by Michael Gove and the Sunday Times, is positive.

Yes we do seem to have fallen off badly from
2000 ( average scores Literacy, 523,maths 529 science 533)
to 2009 (average scores Literacy, 494 maths 492 science 514)

But the 2009 scores were basically the same as 2006 (495,495 and 516) and not much below 2003 (506,506,519) Interestingly, when the 2000 results were published they were widely condemned as rogue results and certainly not acclaimed (except by ministers!) as evidence of high performance.

In addition, Toby and other commentators make much of the fact that in 2009 we came below countries like Poland and Estonia. (I thought Toby mentioned Hungary as well but actually we beat them – apologies if I misheard him ) But in fact the following countries also came below Poland and Estonia; USA, Sweden, Germany, France and Denmark.

Actually, if you look at our performance over all international tests, including the often overlooked TIMMS series and compare it with countries with a similar social, economic and demographic profile, our performance comes out about (or a little above) average. By similar , I mean large, western industrial countries, with significant urban poverty and a lot of children who are non-native language speakers: both factors, of course which impact significantly on educational performance. Such countries include the USA,Germany,France, Italy,Spain,Netherlands. (The last named always do better than us in fact).

Finally, I agree with Francis that it is a pity we didn’t have time to get to the heart of improving teaching and learning and teasing out why schools fail and how we define -sometimes unfairly - failure. Perhaps another occasion.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 13:01

Adrian - it's funny you should say that in 2000 the PISA scores were condemned as rogue results at the time and were only used by ministers (presumably Labour ones to show how brilliant UK pupils performed when Labour were in power, albeit for only a couple of years before the tests were taken), because it is those same results which are now cited by Mr Gove and certain sections of the media to show how the UK has "plunged" down the PISA league tables. And, horror of horrors, the UK is behind some Eastern European countries (two actually: Poland and Estonia, but often an extra one is thrown in for good measure).

People who use the 2000 UK PISA figures to show how poorly the UK is doing know perfectly well that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has found the 2000 UK figures to be statistically flawed and advised against their use for comparison purposes.* This warning, however, doesn't deter those determined to show UK state education is one of the worst in the world. Neither do the selective users of the OECD 2009 data mention that the UK was at the OECD average for Maths and Reading, and above average for Science. Now, average might not be particularly exciting but it isn't a "damning indictment" either. And the above average score for Science is a cause for celebration, surely.

Adrian is also correct about the brushing aside of TIMMS 2007 results because these show that English students were at the top of the European league in Maths and Science. Admittedly, TIMMS is a much smaller survey than PISA, but the performance of English pupils should be celebrated. The absence of praise and publicity raises the question: why is the Government, Mr Gove in particular, and its supporters so keen to show that UK state education is unfit for purpose?


*Paragraph 2, page 1, and footnote 1, page 20 "Viewing the United Kingdom School System Through the Prism of PISA" For link see my post above.

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