Perhaps it was suffering a New Year’s Eve hangover. Perhaps it was January blues.
Whatever the excuse, the statement by the Department for Education (DfE) defending Toby Young’s appointment to the board of the Office for Students has been slated for inaccuracy:
‘Toby Young’s diverse experience includes posts at Harvard and Cambridge as well as co-founding the successful West London free school.’
This implies Young held academic positions at top universities. But that’s not true as Young admitted:
‘I taught undergrads at Harvard and Cambridge and was paid to do so but these weren’t academic ‘posts’ and I’ve never made that claim.’
It’s easy to see where the misunderstanding came from. Young’s claim to the FT that he ‘also taught at Cambridge’ implies a high-level academic appointment. The terms ‘teaching fellow’ and ‘teaching assistant’ when applied to top universities aren’t readily understood by those outside academia. That appears to include the DfE.
Today’s furore about Young’s alleged academic career diverts attention from the rest of the DfE claim: the success of the West London Free School (WLFS).
It’s true that WLFS has been judged good by Ofsted. A short inspection in May 2017 confirmed this judgement. Inspectors said:
‘Last year’s GCSE results [in 2016], the first cohort to complete key stage 4, demonstrated the school’s particular strengths in subjects such as music, science and the humanities.’
This good news was followed by:
‘Subjects such as physical education, classical civilisation and modern foreign languages were less successful.’
This is surprising. The Unique Selling Point of WLFS was insisting that all pupils initially learn Latin. The less successful achievement in GCSE classical civilization must have been disappointing.
The Progress 8 score for WLFS in 2017 was average. WLFS is as successful, then, as 40% of English secondary schools. Nothing wrong with that - but the DfE statement implies greater achievement.
Home Secretary Boris Johnson, formerly editor of Spectator where Young is associate editor and brother to Jo Johnson, the minister who appointed Young, has now entered the fray. He tweeted:
‘Ridiculous outcry over Toby Young. He will bring independence, rigour and caustic wit. Ideal man for job.’
Johnson’s comment raises questions (not for the first time) about his judgement.
First, there are concerns about Young’s independence: his closeness to former education secretary Michael Gove and his directorship of the free school promoting New Schools Network raise doubts about his impartiality.
Second, rigour wasn’t applied to WLFS accounts in 2014 when auditors found non-compliance with the funding agreement. And neither is rigour demonstrated when Young ignores warnings about the unreliability of free school statistics to hype the performance of free schools.
As for ‘caustic wit’, it’s unclear how this is an essential quality for a watchdog board member. What is ridiculous is not the rumpus over Young’s appointment, but the foreign secretary’s belief that the ability to make pointed remarks is as valuable as objectivity and accuracy. Only someone as gaffe-prone as Johnson could think that.