Toby Young extols the virtue of a 'comprehensive grammar'
In August of 2009 I wrote an article for the Observer in which I said I wanted to start a “comprehensive grammar” – a school with small class sizes, strong discipline, high expectations and an academically rigorous curriculum, but which was open to all, regardless of income, ability or faith.
Within a week I’d been contacted by over 200 people offering to help, most of them parents and teachers in West London. I invited them all to a meeting at my house in Acton and out of that group a steering committee emerged. Two years later, we became the first free school to sign a funding agreement with the Secretary of State for Education and we admitted our first group of 120 11-year-olds this term.
Some people have objected that a “comprehensive grammar” is a contradiction in terms, like a “vegetarian butcher”. You simply can’t have grammar school standards at a school with a mixed ability intake. Happily, that’s not true. There are plenty of excellent schools that fit this description, such as the Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, which saw seven of its pupils get into Cambridge this year. Closer to home, another good example is the London Oratory and the ex-headmaster of that school, John McIntosh, is one of the teachers who joined our steering committee and is now on the Board of Governors.
What makes the West London Free School special is that we’re offering children a classical liberal education – a core body of knowledge in a fairly narrow range of traditional, academic subjects, complemented by lots of art, music, drama and competitive sport. Subjects like Latin, History and the three sciences are compulsory, but we teach no technical subjects and no vocational ones. We believe in education for education’s sake – not as a preparation for future employment, but as an end in itself. We want all the pupils at our school to become acquainted with the best that’s been thought and written – Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture. This knowledge, together with the ability to think, is the best preparation for a rich and rewarding life.
Setting up a taxpayer-funded secondary school from scratch hasn’t been easy, but I’m happy to say we’ve managed to recruit an exceptional headmaster in the form of Thomas Packer, ex-head of a successful independent school in Stockton-on-Tees. We had over 100 applicants for the job and I assembled a panel of experts to help me sift through them, including Alice Hudson, the Headmistress of Twyford. I think we all knew when Mr Packer walked into the room that we’d found our headmaster. We now have a full complement of staff, outstanding teachers every one. Mr Packer and his team will be responsible for the operation of the school, with the teachers and parents who set it up serving as Governors.
Our school won’t be to everyone’s taste. Parents should be able to choose the school they believe is best suited to their child. But we can promise you that if you do choose us we will do our best to make sure your child thrives, no matter how difficult he or she might find our academic curriculum. We want our school, like the schools that have inspired us, to be a grammar school for all.
September 21, 2011