Why it's important to applaud Toby Young for getting a genuine social mix in his school

Francis Gilbert's picture
I suspect some people on the site won't be too pleased with me for actually applauding Toby Young who has, let's face it, been horrible about all of the founders of the Local Schools Network at some time or another. However, I think credit needs to be given where credit is due, and I think it's clear that the school he set up, West London Free School (WLFS), does contain a genuine social mix of students, with three out of ten pupils of the current intake being on Free School Meals (FSM). I think it's important to applaud this because the school has not confirmed the worst fears of the LSN that it would be a tax-payer funded school for the wealthy in an area of high social deprivation. I met Toby at the Spectator on Wednesday where we debated Michael Gove and the free schools policy on a podcast which can be found here. We still disagree on a great deal but I am glad to see that his desire for having a socially mixed school is genuine. Schools work best when there is a genuine spread of abilities and pupils from all sorts of backgrounds. Rather enviably, WFLS seems to have achieved this, although there are worries about the numbers of pupils with Special Educational Needs.

Toby Young has just hosted a conference for free schools at WLFS and obviously he is a very influential figure in the movement, having set up the flagship free school. That's why his example is important; if his school has a genuine social mix, then maybe other schools will follow. The anxiety is that the policy overall doesn't lend itself to fair and open admissions. As the British Humanist Association has pointed out a third of English state schools have faith-based admissions which basically allow covert and overt selection, the net result of which is that wealthier students are siphoned off into them, leaving poorer students to languish in schools which are rather too like secondary moderns in character. The free schools policy looks set to exacerbate an already bad situation with roughly a third of free schools being faith-based in character. Toby's argument on the podcast is that a great many free schools are based in socially deprived areas; well, yes, this may be the case, but look a school like Canary Wharf College which is situated in one of the most deprived areas in the country, the Isle of Dogs, and yet has fewer than 5% of pupils on FSM. Many of these schools are being set up deliberately to cater for exclusive social, ethnic and religious groups; there's a genuine worry about ghetto-isation. Particularly troubling for me is the apparent desire for some schools to become military-style boot camps for children from deprived areas while other schools like the Steiner schools are clearly aiming for the liberal, wishy-washy creative market. It's the worst kind of class stereotyping: boot camps for the poor, "yobby" kids, and frolicking in fields for the rich, arty ones. This policy lends itself to these things happening unless it's regulated very tightly -- which it isn't being at the moment.

As Fiona Millar pointed out in a recent article for the Guardian, fair admissions only happen when schools lose the autonomy to pick and choose students, and an local body, like a local authority, has control over it. As I say on the podcast, I don't think the Labour Party are going to change the free schools or academies policies of this current government, but they could tighten up the rules over admissions for ALL schools. One positive thing this government has done is to institute the Pupil Premium which at least gives schools an incentive to admit children from poorer backgrounds because they get more money.

Does WLFS's attitude towards admissions mark a sea change in attitudes? If someone as right-wing as Toby Young can embrace a fair admissions' policy, then maybe his example can persuade other schools who are playing the admissions system?? At the moment, without a coherent admissions policy in place, this is all we can hope for.
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