Today Toby Young published a piece in The Spectator. The majority of it lives behind a paywall, but the first two paragraphs caused a bit of a stir amongst the good folk of twitter as the founder of the West London Free School eased into his usual combative style to defend Michael Gove’s championing of a two tier exam system at age 16.
The concept of inclusion seems to have particularly got Toby Young’s dander up as he rails against this ‘ghastly, politically correct’ word. According to Young, inclusion has created conditions of quite unbearable egregiousness in the British education system, through, for instance, its insistence that wheelchair ramps are installed for disabled students.
I’ll wait for a few moments whilst you go back and read the end of that last paragraph again. You back? Good, now you have seen (and probably clicked the link to the Spectator original to check I was telling the truth) that indeed Toby Young is intensely annoyed that schools have to install wheelchair ramps so children using wheelchairs can get into the school. And his ire does not die away quickly, he soon turns to a berate a mythical ‘special needs department’ where students with dyslexia and mentally ill parents are pandered to. For his encore, and definitely warming to his theme of how dysfunctional humanity and the halt, the lame and the blind will be the downfall of any right thinking society, he opines that laws on equality will prevent any exam that isn’t ‘accessible’ to a “functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six”.
No doubt Young sees these evils as an inevitable consequence of the unnacceptable meddling in education of the state and big government. This is after all the man who celebrated the sentiments of Grover Norquist who wanted to shrink the government, drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the battub (http://bit.ly/Mjz7CI)
This is fine Tory fare; grandstanding to a stale smelling legion of Bufton-Tuftons sat swilling gin in country clubs and wanting a return to a 1950s pedagogy pickled in aspic and the certainties of a class system where children were sorted into sheep and goats at age 11 and nothing challenged this status quo for the rest of their lives.
But certain uneasy questions remain. The first is why, if Young is so anti-state and anti-government, that he chose to found his free school with tax payer money. The last time I checked DfE funding is raised by general taxation, and the setting up of the West London Free School was therefore paid by the very same state which Toby Young would like to murder, leaving only a neo-liberal paradise of private provision in its wake. The true costs of the WLFS are not yet known, as Gove’s department has been less than transparent with figures, but if Toby Young went beyond the facile flashiness of his puerile political beliefs he would have to confront the gaping paradox of why he didn’t found the West London Free School using private capital and make it fee-paying. Or will it be the case that he’ll not drown government in the bath-tub, just subject it to a protracted period of water-boarding.
The second question to remain is Young’s simultaneous commitment to a genuinely comprehensive system (no selection) and the offensive and divisive comments we read in The Spectator piece. Put simply Young cannot have his cake and eat it. He has a perfect right to argue that some children are illiterate savages with no hope of redemption, or they come saddled with physical or mental disabilities which will drag education down to a hopeless pool of mediocrity. But arguing that his school can be genuinely comprehensive and non-selective whilst holding these opinions is simply not tenable.
Which is why, when I asked him on twitter, what the West London Free School would do when troglodytes, dyslexics and wheelchair users applied to the West London Free School, he blocked me rather than supply a credible answer to a reasonable question.
Update: the full text of the Spectator article is now on Toby Young’s Blog (http://bit.ly/Mn2Pa2). The remainder of his argument is that a two tier exam system will not ruin the life chances of those not selected for the upper tier (O level) exams and that 14 year olds are robust enough to cope with this. As evidence for this argument he cites a case study, namely himself who was initially in a mixture of O level and CSE classes but then returned to study to gain A levels and a place at Oxford. If only Young could find one other person who struggled with CSEs and then became a success he’d have TWO case studies, and of course as the plural of anecdote is data, he’d have a rock solid research-based educational argument.
There is also an addendum where Young explains his comments about the troglodyte and takes special care to show he is talking about a ‘dumbed down curriculum’ rather than children with SEN. So it turns out that a ‘troglodyte’ in Young’s bestiary is not a child with SEN, merely a child of very low intelligence, and by the same logic a wheelchair ramp in a school is not part of the school’s commitment to inclusion, it is merely a symptom of the dumbing down of the curriculum. And if you find this logic hard to follow, and his explanation for his comments convoluted, then feel free to join me in the CSE group at the back of the class.