Right to reply: free schools are not divisive

There is no evidence that free schools will damage their neighbours.

I was slightly disappointed that Lisa Nandy saw fit to attack the West London Free School in the course of making her case against free schools in general. One of the courtesies that both sides of this argument generally observe is not to single out individual schools for criticism.

She claimed that the proportion of children on Free School Meals at the WLFS is 23%, compared to an average of 32% at the five neighbouring schools. I don't know how she’s defining "neighbouring schools", but the five closest schools to the West London Free School as the crow flies are Godolphin & Latymer, Ravenscourt Prep, Latymer Upper, Sacred Heart and Flora Gardens. Since the first three of these are independent schools and the proportion of children on FSM at Sacred heart is 7%, I can assure her the average proportion of children on FSM across all five is not 32%.

The proportion on FSM at the WLFS is, in fact, 23.5% – slightly lower than the borough average for state secondary schools, admittedly, but considerably higher than three of the borough's state secondary schools, all of which are maintained schools. But so what? One of the arguments for free schools is that they'll appeal to parents who would otherwise send their children to fee-paying schools, thereby reducing the amount of educational apartheid in England and increasing the number of genuinely comprehensive schools.

The true test, it seems to me, is how reflective the school's intake is of the borough as a whole, not just those people in the borough who currently send their children of secondary school age to state schools. And on that basis, we pass with flying colours. Amazingly, the proportion of households in the Hammersmith Broadway ward, where the WLFS is located, where the annual household income is < £16,500 is 23.5% – exactly the same as the percentage of children at the school on FSM.

In order to make the argument Lisa Nandy’s making, i.e. that the opening of a new free school has an adverse impact on the neighbouring maintained schools, she’d need to show that the percentage of children on FSM at the neighbouring schools increased as a result of the free school opening (not the same thing as showing that the percentage of children on FSM at the free school in question is below the borough average) *and* that the academic performance of pupils at the neighbouring school suffered as a result.  Is there any evidence to support these assertions? I mean, apart from a single quotation from an unnamed minister in a far away country which has a completely different education system to ours?

The best point of comparison we have, I think, is with Labour's city academies programme – and I note that in the past Lisa has been as opposed to academies as she is to free schools. According to the most exhaustive research study carried out to date into the impact of Labour's city academy programme (Machin and Vernoit, 2011), while it's true that academies tend to attract a more affluent cohort of pupils than neighbouring schools, and this does indeed have a negative impact on the "quality" of pupils at those schools, educational attainment at the neighbouring schools *actually improves* as a result of an academy opening next door. Here's the key passage from pp.43-44 of Machin and Vernoit’s paper: "Table 13 shows that it is possible for neighbouring schools to experience significant improvements in their KS4 performance despite the reduction in the ‘quality’ of their pupil intake. That is, the beneficial performance effects, which stem from increased choice/competition and also from the sharing of the academy school facilities (and expertise) with the wider community (Curtis 2008), seem to outweigh the detrimental effects, which stem from the increased pupil intake quality in academy schools (and the corresponding reduction in the pupil-intake quality in the neighbouring schools) and also from a teacher recruitment policy in academies that targets some of the most talented teachers in their neighbouring schools."

Of course, Lisa Nandy makes other objections to free schools that are ideological and don't purport to be evidence-based – they aren't as “locally accountable”, for instance, though I'm not sure what redress there is at present for dissatisfied parents in boroughs where there's never any change in control.

But if Lisa’s main concern is that free schools (and academies) will have a negative impact on the academic performance of children at neighbouring schools, there's no evidence to support that worry and plenty of evidence to suggest it's baseless. If Lisa’s objective (like mine) is to drive up standards across the piece, Machin and Vernoit's research suggests that "increased choice/competition" is the way to go.

On the cost point, even if we take Lisa’s most pessimistic estimate, i.e. that the total capital cost of the first 24 free schools is £130m, that's still less than it cost to deliver new schools under the last government. The average cost of building a new school or refurbishing an existing one under the Building Schools for the Future programme was approximately £28m. That compares to an average free school cost of £5.42m according to Lisa’s own figures.

Finally, Lisa claims that the WLFS receives, on average, £12,416 per pupil. If only! We receive exactly the same per pupil revenue funding as the neighbouring maintained schools, i.e. between £6,500 and £7,000 per pupil.

As a Conservative, I take no pleasure in pointing any of this out because it would clearly be in my party's interest if Labour went into the next general election pledging to dismantle free schools. But I don't think Ed Miliband (or, more likely, Yvette Cooper) is quite that suicidal. All the evidence points to the fact that free schools will (a) reduce educational apartheid; (b) have a positive impact on the academic performance of both their own pupils and the pupils at neighbouring schools; (c) are a more cost effective way of providing much needed additional school places than the method devised by the last government; and (d) cost the taxpayer no more in terms of revenue funding than maintained schools.

Toby Young is the co-founder of the West London Free School and a columnist for the Sun on Sunday.

Pupils wait for school buses in the playground at the West London Free School. Photograph: Getty Images.

Toby Young is the co-founder of the West London Free School and a columnist for the Sun on Sunday and the Spectator.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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