One of the most important milestones in the course of setting up a taxpayer-funded school is the funding agreement. This is a contract between the Secretary of State for Education and the trustees of the school setting out the terms on which he agrees to finance the school. He can terminate the agreement in certain exceptional circumstances, but shutting down schools is never popular and he’s usually required to give seven years’ notice.
For that reason, it’s not something he enters into lightly. He has to satisfy himself that the school can meet various educational standards, that it has found a suitable site and that there will be sufficient parental demand to make it financially viable in the long term. Perhaps most importantly, it’s an act of trust. From now on, the Secretary of State’s reputation will be tied to the performance of your school.
I’m happy to say that earlier this week Michael Gove signed a funding agreement with the West London Free School. We are the first in what I hope will be a long line of state-funded, independent schools set up by parents and teachers.
It’s too early to say whether the free schools policy will be a success, but we have at least proved that a group of unpaid volunteers can establish a new school. Whatever reservations you may have about voluntary groups delivering public services, we have put paid to the myth that people simply won’t have the time. The West London Free School is the Big Society in action.
I can’t pretend it’s been easy. Nothing worth doing ever is. As the leader of the project, I’ve devoted between 40 and 60 hours a week to it for the past 18 months. My wife often jokes that if I spent the same amount of time on my career as I spend on the school we could afford to send all our children to Eton. Probably true, but what began as a project has become a crusade. The mission is now all-consuming. I have become possessed by a Jesuitical fervour.
This has partly been a response to the willingness of others to lend a hand. I first mooted the idea in the Observer in August of 2009 and, practically overnight, I had 150 emails from people offering to help. I invited them all to a meeting at my house in Acton and over 40 people squeezed into my sitting room. By evening’s end I had the nucleus of a steering committee. People I’d never met before offered to take on Herculean tasks, such as writing the business plan. This wasn’t done in a spirit of suck-it-and-see. Because I expressed the belief that it could be done, they believed it too. And once they’d begun to believe, I couldn’t let them down, particularly after they’d started putting in the hours.
There’s also the sense of responsibility that comes from having the hopes of so many parents resting on your shoulders. For every email I get from someone offering to help, I get ten from parents wanting to send their children to the school. As of today, over 3,000 parents have registered with us, some with children as young as two. That’s a lot of people to let down.
Above all, I think it’s the sheer unpleasantness of the opposition. Whenever I feel my resolve slipping I picture the sneer on Fiona Millar’s face when, sitting opposite me on Newsnight, she said she wasn’t concerned about free schools because groups like mine didn’t have the wherewithal to set them up.
I think about all the lies that have been told by Andrew Slaughter, our local Labour MP, including the claim that we’re trying to ‘oust severely disabled children’ from a site in Hammersmith. I recall Roy Hattersley becoming puce with rage on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House at the very idea that children from ordinary backgrounds should be offered the same academically rigorous education that he had.
This is just the end of the beginning. The next step will be to deliver a classical liberal education that’s every bit as good as that provided by Britain’s best independent schools but which is accessible to all, regardless of income, ability or faith. We call it a ‘comprehensive grammar’ and if we can make it work it could change the face of education in this country. Ludicrously ambitious, I know, but they said we’d never get this far. As Max Weber wrote, it’s only by reaching for the impossible that you discover what’s possible.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.