Toby Young: First term report of my West London Free School


Four months ago, journalist and author Toby Young famously helped launch one of London’s first free schools. Now, its headteacher is receiving standing ovations in pubs. Why?

On September 7th last year, 120 11-year-olds started their education at the West London Free School, a bold new experiment in state education. Set up by a group of parents and teachers but funded by the taxpayer, the WLFS describes itself as “a grammar school for all” in which all children, regardless of background or ability, are expected to study a traditional, academic curriculum.

It was the proudest day of my life because, as the lead proposer and co-founder of the school, I’ve been working flat out on this project since 2009.

It’s too early to say whether it’s a success or not. We won’t really know that until the summer of 2017 when we get our first batch of GCSE results. But there have been some positive signs.

I arranged for all 120 pupils to see Simon Callow recite A Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre in December. They sat there, completely spellbound, for 70 minutes, gripped by Charles Dickens’s classic tale.

To begin with, there’s no evidence that any of the children are struggling with subjects that, in a typical comprehensive, would only be studied by those in the top set. One of the most common criticisms of the WLFS is that our academically rigorous curriculum, which includes compulsory Latin, will be inaccessible to all but the very brightest.

Not so. One of the founding principles of the WLFS is that all children should be introduced to the best that’s been thought and written and, so far, nothing’s happened to make us change our minds. To give just one example, I arranged for all 120 pupils to see Simon Callow recite A Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre in December. They sat there, completely spellbound, for 70 minutes, gripped by Charles Dickens’s classic tale.

The children have also responded well to the WLFS’s specialism in music. Two-thirds of the children are learning an instrument, compared to less than a third at a typical comprehensive, and the school choir dazzled the parents at our Christmas carol concert with a choral version of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’.

Our emphasis on competitive sport has also borne fruit. The girls’ netball team is currently second in the local school league, consistently beating teams containing much older girls, and one of the players has even been scouted by a county club.

Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. We sent a boy home for having hair of an inappropriate length – just for one day – and it made the national news. Even though the school rules are very clear that a “number two” is the shortest haircut children are allowed to have, and in spite of the fact that the parents of the boy in question had signed an agreement in which they pledged to enforce all the rules, we were still accused of acting unfairly.

Luckily, in The Guardian’s report of the episode the boy’s mother said that, in all other respects, she thought the school was “excellent”. “He’s loved going to school,” she said. “He does rugby, karate, Lego club. He does after-school activities every night apart from Friday. I can’t fault the school.”

It was heart-warming to read that. But the biggest endorsement the school received was from local parents. We organised three open days so parents of prospective pupils could visit the school and we were expecting, at most, a couple of hundred on each day. In the event, 5,000 people turned up.

By October 31st we’d received over 1,000 applications for our next 120 places, making us the most popular school in the borough. I’m pleased to say that the applicants are from all parts of the local community.

Another of the criticisms made of the WLFS before it opened was that our classical curriculum and emphasis on music would only appeal to white, middle class parents. In fact, a quarter of our first 120 pupils are on free school meals and over a third are black, Asian or members of another ethnic minority. I’m sure the same will be true of our next 120 pupils.

To give another example of how popular the school is with the locals, the headmaster recently walked into the Andover Arms, a nearby pub, and received a spontaneous standing ovation.

We’re so pleased with how everything’s gone so far that we’re planning to open a West London Free Primary School in 2013, offering the same classical liberal education. I’ve no doubt it’ll prove to be every bit as popular with local parents as the secondary school.

To learn more about the West London Free School, visit the school’s website on www.wlfs.org. If you’re interested in starting your own free school, try Toby Young’s new book, How to Set Up a Free School.