Free school founder Toby Young: ‘Progressive education in Haringey turned me into traditionalist’

Journalist and free school founder Toby Young. Picture: Dieter Perry

Journalist and free school founder Toby Young. Picture: Dieter Perry - Credit: Archant

Pioneering free school founder and journalist Toby Young has revealed that his unhappy school years at a forward-thinking Muswell Hill secondary were what turned him into an educational traditionalist.

The author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People said he “suffered” at experimental comprehensive Creighton School in Creighton Avenue – which later became Fortismere, now regarded as one of the UK’s top state secondaries.

He was speaking to the Ham&High ahead of his headline appearance at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival, November 13 to 16 at South Hampstead High School, where he will discuss the purpose of education.

Mr Young, the founder of the UK’s first free school, the West London Free School, said: “It’s probably true that having been to a very progressive school and having suffered as a consequence that it has turned me off progressive education.

“I’ve only subsequently discovered that many other people had similarly bad experiences in similar environments.”

Creighton was the subject of a 1970s Labour Party education experiment to integrate ethnic minority children into the school from other parts of Haringey, written about in a book called The Creighton Report by Dartmouth Park journalist Hunter Davies.

“The irony is that these kind of schools were ‘progressive’ but actually they did little to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Mr Young, who grew up in Highgate and now lives in west London.

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“I was all right because I came from a middle-class background but a lot of children didn’t get a second chance.”

After moving to Devon, he left school at 16 with one O-level.

But he re-took his exams and went on to attend sixth-form at William Ellis School in Highgate Road, near Parliament Hill Fields, where he received a more traditional education.

He secured two Bs and a C and got into Oxford after he was sent an acceptance letter by mistake.

“Certainly the type of education I got at William Ellis is the type of education I would like my children to have,” Mr Young said.

“That was my original motive for wanting to set up a free school – because I wanted my children to have a classical, liberal education, like the education I had from the age of 17.”

Mr Young will attempt to answer the question: “What is education for?” on a panel alongside Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow and former Eton headmaster Tony Little on Friday, November 13 at 8pm.

He takes the “classic liberal” position that the purpose of education should be to impart knowledge, which he sees as a birthright for children.

He said: “I would like all schools to teach a traditional curriculum but I would stop short of forcing them to do that. The best way of encouraging other schools is by showing how effective that can be.”

For full timetable and to book tickets, visit