DfE dunderheads strike again – statement re Toby Young’s academic career misleading

Janet Downs's picture

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.  

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TubbyIsaacs's picture
Thu, 04/01/2018 - 18:45


I looked up what the WLFS does with disadvantaged pupils. Is it me or is it not all that good, especially for London?


TubbyIsaacs's picture
Thu, 04/01/2018 - 20:52


What do you make of achievement by disadvantaged pupils?

Doesn't look stellar, for London.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/01/2018 - 09:16

Tubby - the Progress 8 score for disadvantaged pupils in 2017 hasn't been published yet.  In 2016, the P8 score for WLFS disadvantaged pupils  was -0-07.  According to the Telegraph in 2016, 'a school is considered below standard if their score is below -0.5, while a score between 0 and -0.5 means the school is below the national average.'  It appears, then, that results for WLFS disadvantaged pupils were both below standard and below the national average in 2016. 

However, EBacc P8 results in 2016 tell a different story.   The P8 score for disadvantaged WLFS in EBacc subjects was  0.21 which is higher than the national average for all other students of 0.14.  On the other hand, the P8 score for disadvantaged pupils in non-Ebacc subjects was low: -0.49 against a national average for all other pupils of 0.09.

It appears, then, that WLFS concentrated more on EBacc subjects than non-EBacc subjects.   The Ofsted short inspection praised the progress of all WLFS pupils including disadvantaged ones on having higher than average progress in Science but agreed that progress for all pupils in 'Subjects such as physical education, classical civilisation and modern foreign languages were less successful'.


agov's picture
Fri, 05/01/2018 - 13:10

So does that mean it's kinda like most schools; being not particularly especially good or bad in any way at all; and is equalled or exceeded by most other schools (of all types)?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/01/2018 - 15:00

agov - in 2017 (provisional results) WLFS is the same as 40% of other state secondary schools if judged on Progress 8.  20% of English state secondary schools had higher P8 scores, 20% had worse.  In other words, WLFS's P8 score (the amount of progress made between the end of primary and GCSEs) is average.  The pupils made the progress that would be expected given their prior achievement - neither more nor less.

There's nothing wrong at all with having an average P8 score but whether this is the 'academic excellence' which Michael Gove claimed Toby Young's schools achieved is arguable (see my other thread re Gove's comments supporting TY).   It appears that Gove is claiming WLFS is better than it actually is.  That's not unusual for Gove - he has a track record of exaggerating test scores of his favourite schools (eg Durand, Cuckoo Hall).

I'm aware that P8 is a flawed measure.  It discriminates against schools with  pupils who are unlikely to take eight GCSEs, for example, yet the progress made by those pupils may be exactly, or better than, what might be expected based on prior achievement.  And the prior achievement is, in any case, based only on SAT results in reading, writing and maths.  How pupils' progress in, say, history can be measured by using test results which didn't test history is unclear.  I would argue it can't be - but that's a debate for another day.

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