Toby Young: Fortismere’s failure became a William Ellis winner

TOBY YOUNG LATEST: He was on the radio yesterday talking about how William Ellis School in Highgate had sorted him right out as a teenager. (The irony, of course, pointed out many times, is that Fiona Millar is a governor there now and the two spend a lot of their lives in public spats, sometimes quite aggressively, about the future of education). Young used his air time to explain how he wanted to replicate what he saw during his time at William Ellis for his new West London Free School.

Charting his childhood for Radio 4’s The House Where I Grew Up, Young also got to trash what went on at another school he attended, Fortismere. (Other alumni: Ray Davies, Dexter Fletcher, me). Here, he moaned, he was failed by an experimental set-up overseen by the then headteacher, Molly Hattersley (Roy’s wife). This was way back when Fortismere in Muswell Hill was called Creighton and there was a drive to open it up to children from all different backgrounds across Haringey’s diverse communities. The contrast with then and the hard-to-get-into, house price inflating, fortress of a school it is now couldn’t be starker.

Young emerged from the Creighton/Fortismere ‘experiment’ with just two O-Levels and had to re-take them so that he could qualify for William Ellis’s sixth form. He went on to study at Oxford.

“Fortismere is now one of the very best comprehensives in the country. It gets outstanding GCSE and A-Level results,” he said. “It sends children to Oxford and Cambridge every year. When I was here it was a sort of experimental cutting edge progressive comprehensive at which children from all different parts of Haringey were bussed in to create some sort of racial mix. One of the things I remember is that it was a very racially segregated school, there was a lot of racial conflict particularly in the playground.”

I wasn’t there then, Toby was. But maybe it was predictable that as the school tried to diversify that black children naturally warmed to other black children during breaks and white to white, in those early days. Changes to attitude and perception don’t happen overnight and certainly not bang, right this second, after you introduce a new idea. The Creighton plan seemed worthy of investigation and an effort to avoid the alternative: an entire schools system, not just one school playground, unofficially segregated along the lines of poor black families using one school and affluent white families using another.

A bigger horror for Toby, looking back, was Molly’s “mixed ability classes”

“I wasn’t under pressure, I don’t recall being given any homework,” he said. “I was one of the children failed by the school. I wasn’t a self-starter. I needed a school with clear boundaries, high expectations and firm discipline. We were taught in mixed ability classes here. She (Molly Hattersley) had done away with setting. That wasn’t something that suited me.”

He admitted that he did have to take some responsibility for his exam failures but added again: “The general excess of progressive education Creighton had embodied wasn’t a good thing and we have definitely rowed back from that now.”

At William Ellis, where he impersonated teachers with posh voices for the radio show, he found the discipline and demands he says he needed. “I really excelled here,” Young said. “I want to duplicate the qualities I experienced here in my West London Free School, a grammar school curriculum to an all ability intake.” He may have a point about middle class teens not really being stretched at schools like Fortismere and William Ellis. I wrote in a post ages ago that some pupils will achieve good grades by doing the bare minimum. Whether that issue should be resolved by changing admissions polices, an overhaul of the way schools are structured and creating a whole wave of new schools is another matter.

There was a pay-off for those sick of hearing about Young and his Free School; for those who think the hearty efforts and energy of Young and others who are clearly interested and involved in education should be concentrated on the schools we already have rather than an abandoning them for new ones. (If so, well done for getting this far). To counterbalance his know-it-all assessment of what went on at Creighton/Fortismere and William Ellis, an old Ellis school chum is wheeled in to tell us what some people might have already suspected…

The friend said Young used to rock around on a motorbike in a pinstripe suit and a copy of The Guardian under his arm…. the suggestion being that people were clearly muttering ‘the prick!’ behind his back. “Before people spoke to him or met him,” says the friend, “people despised him.” They might have guessed then that the boy-man Young would one day write a book called How To Lose Friends And Alienate People

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