Start Your Own School

Much as it pains me to say it, Toby Young might have a point.

Start Your Own School

I don't suppose I'm alone in thinking Toby Young is a chump. But it's his pomposity that gets to me, not his buffoonery. He once rang me - I don't even know him! - to tick me off about something and his tone throughout was repulsively grand. He didn't actually say that he thought me an oik and a horrible nonentity, but I got the distinct impression that was what he meant.

However, brace yourselves. On the subject of comprehensive education, I don't believe he is entirely wrong. Isn't it obvious that the system is still failing too many children? Whether his alternative - a free school in Acton, west London, at which Latin will be compulsory - is the solution to such a failure is a moot point. Probably not, is my guess, as it will be stuffed only with little Mauds and Hugos. But this doesn't mean that all his arguments are muddle-headed. When it comes to the feeble aspirations of certain school regimes, he is absolutely right.

I used to be a governor at a "challenging" school in Hackney and I still groan at the memory of a meeting at which we, the governing body, were asked to identify the three most important things our students should take with them on leaving school. Top of my list was a decent set of exam results. My colleagues, some of whom were teachers, disagreed. Top of their lists were "lasting friendships" and "inquiring minds". Soon after that, I resigned in despair.

Start Your Own School (29 September, 7pm), a documentary about Young's campaign to set up a free school, wanted to be a comedy and, given its central protagonist, it was always going to involve a certain amount of farce. Young looks like the old Beano character Baby Face Finlay­son, only instead of a motorised pram he drives a bright red people carrier with a National Trust sticker on its windscreen, and instead of shouting "Yuk, yuk!" at everything, he waffles on about how the modern curriculum contains too many "isms", whatever that means.

When we saw him trying to make people like him, it was never anything other than embarrassing: like watching Ricky Gervais in The Office. What is it with that weird faux-transatlantic accent he periodically affects? Plus, he sometimes appeared to be completely incompetent. There was an especially choice moment when he turned up at the Department for Education for a Very Important Meeting, only to discover he had got the wrong day.

Nevertheless, this issue is important; there is just no getting away from that. Critics of free schools believe taxpayers' money should be used only to improve existing establishments, and insist that the best way middle-class parents can improve the system is to bite the bullet and send their darlings to the local school. These are fair points, but they're too regularly deployed as a smokescreen.

I was fascinated by the way the NUT's local representative, Nick Grant, oozed only envy at the thought of Young and others like him. Clearly the idea that some free schools might turn out to be quite good fills him with horror.

I wonder why. It seems odd for someone in education to regard collective failure as preferable to any kind of success at all.

I do understand that it is hard to see past Young's rebarbative and self-promoting exterior. But this is easily remedied. He should just delegate the public aspects of his latest project to his wife, Caroline Bondy, a foxy creature with a seductively heavy fringe, whose eyes roll like marbles at Toby's every utterance. Wow. What a woman. I'm amazed she let him get within five miles of her best pyjamas. Not only does she look like Rebecca Hall, she seems quite normal. The only hitch is that she is obviously not half so keen on free schools as Baby Face.

In a quiet moment in the (state) classroom where she is a teaching assistant, she wondered aloud why her husband is so obsessed with getting his own school off the ground. Wouldn't it just be easier to enrol the children at an existing establishment? Yes, it would. But as she also admitted: Young is one of those people who do not like to take no for an answer. That's how he bagged her - and that, in the long run, is how he'll bag free Latin classes for his children.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut