When I got an email from the Evening Standard’s education correspondent at 06.29am yesterday I had no idea that my life was about to turn to shit. She had just read an interview I’d done for a magazine called Schools Week in which, among other things, I said that I was standing down as chief executive of the group of free schools I’ve helped set up. She wanted to talk to me about why I’d made this decision.
At that point, I made a terrible mistake. I asked if I could send her an email explaining why I was stepping down rather than talk to her in person. The reason for this is that I’m in the midst of a terrible bout of summer flu. So I dashed off a quick email
It became clear just how stupid that was when I noticed that I’d started trending on Twitter at around noon. Most of the pieces linked to an article in the Evening Standard by the journalist who’d contacted me, headlined: ‘Toby Young: Running free school was harder than I thought.’ The opening paragraph read: “Toby Young today admitted running a free school is more difficult than he thought as he prepares to step down as CEO of the West London Free School Trust.”
I gawped at this with horror. At no point had I said, either in my email or in the Schools Week interview, that “running a free school” was “harder than I thought”. Critics of free schools often claim that amateurs like me aren't qualified to "run" schools and my response has always been that the people who set up free schools aren’t the people who run them, unless they happen to be experienced teachers. Free schools, like nearly every other type of school, are run by headteachers. But the Standard headline made it sound as if I was agreeing with the policy’s critics.
In the Schools Week interview, I did express regret for some of the things I’d said about teachers in the past and I also said that one of the lessons I'd learnt is that high expectations and a traditional, knowledge-based curriculum aren’t, by themselves, enough to make a good school. Just as important is making sure you have the right leaders in place who share your vision.
However, I didn't in any way link these observations to my decision to stand down as chief executive. I was merely reflecting on some of the lessons I’d learnt along the way. The Standard piece gave the impression that I now regretted having bitten off more than I could chew and, having fallen flat on my face, I now wanted to hand over to a professional.
It got worse. The Mirror published its own version of the story, headlined: ‘Toby Young admits “running a school was harder than I thought” in extraordinary Free Schools climbdown.’ This was followed by the Independent – ‘Toby Young admits “running a school was harder than I thought” as he backs down as Free School CEO’ – and the Times: ‘Poster boy of free schools quits’.
I began to tear my hair out – or would have done if I had any. The Standard’s misleading headline had now become a direct quote and all the follow-up stories made it sound as if I was confessing to gross incompetence.
In fact, the schools in our multi-academy trust are all a huge success, something I’m immensely proud of. Yes, making the schools work has been a challenge, but all the people involved in the trust, including the original group of “amateur” parent-founders, have overcome those challenges.
The secondary school, which opened in 2011, was ranked 'Good' by Ofsted in 2013, and the West London Free School Primary, which opened in 2013, was ranked 'Outstanding' last year. We now have excellent senior leaders across all the schools, as well as fantastic classroom teachers, and I'm sure our first batch of results, which are due this summer, will be well above average. And by “above average” I mean among the best in the country.
The reason I’m stepping down as CEO – I’m not quitting, for heaven’s sake – is because our trust is expanding, not contracting. Our hope is to become a multi-academy trust containing 10-20 schools over the next 10 years and that requires a more seasoned chief executive than me who can commit to the job full-time. (I do it three days a week.) And I’ll stay on as a director and remain involved in the schools for years to come, not least because my daughter is at one of them and my other three children will soon follow.
The news stories were terrible, but the comments on Twitter were something else. At one point, so many left-wing critics of free schools were crowing with satisfaction that I became one of the five most tweeted about subject in the UK. Not bad on the day that results started pouring in from elections all over the country.
Some of the tweets were downright nasty. “I look forward to the day he falls into a pit of hungry bears wearing honey-and-fish cologne,” said a children’s author, while someone describing himself as an “artist/musician” said “I would enjoy punching his face to a pulp with no remorse”.
Others took what they saw as my admission of failure as proof that entrusting rank amateurs with running schools ruined children’s lives: “Too late for the thousands of children’s education he has screwed up, unforgivable.”
Some conspiracy theorists, believing the headline quote to be accurate, accused me of choosing yesterday as a good day to bury bad news, along with Nicky Morgan, who announced her U-turn on academies in the midst of the local election results. If that was my plan, it had clearly backfired.
But the tweets that were hardest to take were those praising me for my honesty. “Still though, nice of him to admit openly that the Tories education policy is a total car-crash,” tweeted a man who “welcomes refugees” and “hates racism”, according to his profile. Another said: “Much as I hate Toby Young, at least he had the decency to admit he was wrong.”
On and on it went, like some unfolding nightmare. I then got a call from Channel 4 News asking if I’d like to come on to talk about why I’d had a change of heart about free schools. (More gnashing of teeth.) In spite of my hacking cough, I thought it might give me an opportunity to correct some of the misunderstandings that had sprung up throughout the day so I made my way to the studio.
I was on with a special needs teacher who is an ardent critic of free schools and academies and we were due to talk about Morgan’s U-turn as well as my news. I thought it started out reasonably well, in which I explained that I wasn’t stepping down because I’d decided the free schools policy was unworkable, but because the ones I’d helped set up were such a success. But this evidently didn’t make much of an impression on Jon Snow, the programme’s veteran presenter, because he then asked me if I thought the reason Morgan had rowed back on turning all schools into academies was because of the failure of my schools.
I was stunned. So nothing to do with the rebellion against universal academisation gathering force on the Tory backbenches, but just down to me and my supposed abandonment of the free schools policy? This wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind by putting the record straight.
All in all, a truly terrible day. I don’t think the Evening Standard journalist intended to put a malevolent spin on the story – and I’m sure she didn’t write the headline – but the combination of the two created a frame for the news of my departure as CEO that was a gift to critics of the government’s education reforms.
For the past seven years, I’ve been a passionate advocate of free schools and have painstakingly avoided saying or doing anything that could be used as ammunition by their massed army of critics. Yet at a stroke, I’d somehow undone all that work. I don’t doubt that for years to come, opponents of the policy will cite my “mea culpa” as exhibit A in the case for the prosecution.
What pains me the most is the thought of how all my fellow free school founders will react to these misleading reports. It’s still a relatively small world and I know many of them personally. Again and again, I’ve told them to keep the faith, to treat obstacles as reasons to try harder rather than give up, to stay true to their dreams. How will they respond when they read an article in The Times saying I’ve “quit” because I’ve changed my mind about the free schools programme? It makes me want to weep.
Well, for the record, I haven’t quit. I’m going to stay on as a director of the trust and will remain involved for many years to come. The schools created by the people in my group are all wonderful. When I visit them, as I do almost every day, it warms my heart to see how effectively the children, staff and governors have brought the founders’ original vision to life. Here are hundreds and hundreds of children from all backgrounds receiving the kind of education that’s usually reserved for the offspring of the privileged elite. Helping to set these schools up has been the most rewarding experience of my professional life and I’d recommend it to anyone. Apart from the horrible, spite-filled critics, ready to pounce at the slightest opportunity. That bit isn’t so nice, obviously.