Toby Young at Heart

'It is only when one tries to do good that one discovers just how many people will try to prevent one's sucess'

Katharine Birbalsingh

When I first met Toby Young, he was well down the road to establishing the West London Free School. He took me to Eton and I listened to him read a chapter of the book he was writing to a room full of boys. As soon as he had finished, the hands shot up. These Etonians had invited Toby so they could hear all about the world of journalism, his dabbling in New York media, the glamour, the celebrities, the fortune, the fun.

But no matter how hard they tried, Toby managed to somehow turn the question into one about education, and he spoke mainly about his school. The boys quickly realised that his passion lay not in journalism but in the free school movement, and without any prompting, turned their questioning to a realm they had not yet imagined.  

Some months later, I saw the film How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, based on Toby’s account of his time in New York. I was shocked. Was this the Toby I had come to know? I only knew him as a kind, selfless, family man who had made massive sacrifices to set up a free school. The protagonist in the film was unrecognisable. Then I read about Toby’s “previous life”, full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. So I started to wonder: what made Toby metamorphose from a generally selfish being into someone who would make sacrifices for others?

The state’s job is to provide services such as schools, hospitals and transport. But the problem with the state providing everything is that it rids ordinary people of a sense of personal and collective responsibility.

This is the marvel of the free school movement. While it is an initiative that comes from the state, it actually encourages people to help improve the lives of others instead of distancing them from their communities like so many other state initiatives do. So a journalist who once only cared about being invited to the hippest party was seduced into setting up a free school and is suddenly able to feel the “high” that can only come from doing good.

Toby’s initial interest in setting up his free school was sparked by wanting a good education for his own children. But as time ticked on, he became more and more committed to encouraging children from more challenging backgrounds to apply to his school.

He went to a great deal of trouble to make this happen. Indeed, Toby is now hoping to set up a whole raft of schools. If he was only interested in his own children, he wouldn’t have such hopes.

Setting up a free school makes individuals into better people. Parents who have always worked for the sake of their own families, perhaps digging into their pockets once in a while to throw a 50p coin to a beggar, have never had the opportunity to feel the elation that comes when one affects a stranger’s life for the better.

Setting up a free school takes so much commitment, time, energy and resilience. The irony is that it is when one tries to do good that one discovers just how many people will try to prevent one’s success. As Toby once said, “As a journalist, I enjoyed a reputation as a professional irritant, but I’ve only become truly despised — and I mean really, really hated — since I decided to do something meaningful and worthwhile with my life.”

Did Michael Gove know that this was what would happen when he set up the free school movement? Perhaps. The US and Sweden started their own free schools many years ago and so we have learned from some of their mistakes. Gove has done so much for our education system and it is important that he remains in post to continue his extraordinary and revolutionary work.

One of the reasons the free school movement alters people so significantly is that a lot of personal sacrifice is needed in order to set up a school. It takes up so much time. Indeed, the chapter of the book Toby read to those Eton boys that evening never saw the publishing light of day because Toby was too busy making sure his school would provide a variety of extra-curricular activities.

At the end of Toby’s talk, when he pointed to me to answer one of the boys’ questions, I turned to them all and railed about how lucky they were, how they had no idea what life was like in state schools, and how it was their duty to do something with their lives, to make use of their privilege, and change the world for the better.

Whether they absorbed my message, I don’t know. But I do know that a far more powerful argument to do good with their lives stood before them that night: it was simply Toby’s enthusiasm for his new school. He had abandoned an exciting lifestyle for the privilege of having an impact on the future education of our young people. If only we could all catch a little of the free-school, do-gooder bug that bit Toby, how much better Britain would be.

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