Toby Young on Social Mobility, Splitting and Selective Schooling

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If every minister was as bold as Michael Gove, Britain would have the largest economy in the world within 50 years. Toby Young.

A self-proclaimed classical liberal and associate editor of The Spectator, Toby Young is no stranger to controversy. As a BrExiteer, the former CEO of a free school and the founder of #Tories4Corbyn, frequently finding himself on the front line of political debate.

One of the first major policies of the new government is, according to reports, to lift the ban on new grammar schools. Theresa May gave a stirring speech about the importance of a fair society on the steps of Downing Street, but on average only 4.85% of grammar school students have been eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years (FSM6). The national average is 29.4%. We asked Toby whether grammar schools actually are vehicles for social mobility.

“No. Not just because of the low numbers of disadvantaged children they admit, but also because they have a negative impact on neighbouring schools. On average, disadvantaged children do worse in their GCSEs in those areas that have grammars than in those that don’t. This is fairly well-known, I think. What isn’t as well-known is that grammars didn’t do much for social mobility in the 1950s and 1960s when they educated 25 per cent of children at state secondary schools. Among children of semi-skilled and unskilled workers who went to grammars in their heyday, two-thirds left without two A-levels.”

The decision, despite not being officially announced by the government, is already eliciting strong reactions. The Conservative chair of the education committee, Neil Carmichael, has vowed to fight the plans and Conservative Voice, co-founded by David Davis and Liam Fox, have called for the end of the 11+ but support the decision and want 20 new grammar schools created in Britain’s most deprived areas. We asked Toby whether the government should lift the ban.

“I’m in favour of lifting the ban on selection, but that’s because I’d like to see more partially selective schools, not more fully-fledged grammar schools. Partially selective schools are those that set aside a minority of their places for children of exceptional ability, with the rest being mixed ability places. I recently did a quick-and-dirty analysis of all England’s partially selective schools – there are about three dozen of them – and found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds at them not only do better in their GCSEs than they do at non-selective schools, but make more progress as well. Partially selective schools are also much less socially exclusive than grammars. On average, 23.72% of the pupils at them are FSM6. In order to boost this number, I’d limit the opportunity to become partially selective to just those academies and free schools that admit more than the local average percentage of FSM6 pupils.”

Another solution being suggested by James O’Shaughnessy, a former policy director under David Cameron, is the creation of ‘super-grammars’, which only accept the smartest students from exclusively disadvantaged backgrounds. Toby had this to say about the idea.

“It depends how many you’re talking about. A proposal to set up, say, half-a-dozen elite grammar schools for the very brightest children targeted at the least well-off might get some traction.”

Michael Gove’s flagship policy during his time as Education Secretary was the creation of community led free schools, one of which was founded by Toby himself. The West London Free School in Hammersmith opened its doors to 600 local children in 2011 and was the most over-subscribed tax-payer funded school in the country in 2013, receiving 1,196 applications for 120 places. That year, 9 in 10 free schools were oversubscribed. We asked Toby whether new grammar schools would affect the popularity of free schools like his.

“I don’t think it would make any difference unless a grammar school opened next door. More generally, I hope the success of schools like the ones I’ve helped set up will give parents more confidence in non-selective state schools. There’s no reason why a child can’t do as well at a school like ours as any other school, irrespective of background or ability.”

We then asked whether the U-Turn on academies by Nicky Morgan and the creation of new grammar schools by Justine Greening will damage Gove’s reputation as a great reformer amongst Tories.

“I hope not. We need more courageous, imaginative politicians. If every minister was as bold as him, Britain would have the largest economy in the world within 50 years.”

Toby backed Michael Gove in the leadership election and, after failing to make the final two, he offered Theresa May his vote on the condition that Gove be brought into the cabinet as a lead negotiator for BrExit. After Leadsom’s withdrawal, May became Prime Minister without his vote and has since sacked Gove. When asked whether May should call a snap election, Toby said…

“No, I don’t think so. We need a period of calm and stability following a tumultuous 13 months in British politics. And it wouldn’t be easy to get around the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Theresa May would have to table a vote of no confidence in her own government, which would be messy and might not pass.”

This, could jeopardise the grammar proposals, as he explains that it would be difficult to pass such measures with a thin majority.

“I’m not sure Theresa May and Justine Greening could get a bill lifting the ban through the present House of Commons, let alone the House of Lords. But a proposal along the lines I’ve outlined above – allowing for more partially selective schools and linking it to extending opportunities for children on free school meals – might get through.”

With that thin majority, May has already started her work on BrExit strategy. The government’s decision to allow an Icelandic financial firm to operate in the UK, the first in a decade, could be a sign of the government starting to woo EFTA members. However it could be derailed by Norway. As a staunch BrExiteer, we asked Toby which model he would like to see pursued by the government.

“I think we’ll probably end up with an EEA-type arrangement, at least as a stop gap. Critics will describe it as “EEA minus” and defenders “EEA plus”. I predict it will be like Norway’s arrangement, except with less freedom of movement and associate membership of the single market instead of full membership. Remainers will think this is a worse arrangement than full membership of the EU, but I think it would be better because Britain wouldn’t be subject to EU laws.”

In the run-up to the 2015 Labour leadership election, Toby attempted to join the party in an attempt to consign it to electoral oblivion. With Corbyn now in charge, we asked Toby whether the party was doomed to split:

“Hard to say. Among the parliamentary Labour Party, there seems to be more appetite for a long drawn-out war of attrition with Corbyn and his allies than a new party. In 2020, a lot of moderate Labour MPs either won’t stand, because they’ve been deselected or resigned, or they will stand and they’ll lose their seats, because Labour is so unpopular. So where will the impetus to set up an alternative Labour Party come from?”

You can follow Toby on Twitter on @Toadmeister.

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