Toby Young, the controversial journalist turned educationalist, has been appointed as the head of a government-funded charity to promote free schools in England.
Young will take over as director of the New Schools Network (NSN) in January, to run the charity backed by the Department for Education to lobby for more of the schools to be opened and assist with the application process.
The former Conservative parliamentary hopeful and associate editor of the Spectator quickly moved to reassure free school supporters that his role would not be politically motivated.
“My own political views are right-of-centre. But in my capacity as director of NSN, I will be non-partisan,” Young said in an email to the network’s members.
“That’s not just because I want NSN to continue working with a broad range of groups and organisation. It’s also because I want free schools to remain a central part of England’s public education system and that is most likely to happen if they command as much political support as possible.
“NSN has already done some fantastic work in this regard, winning over sceptics on all sides, and that is something I hope to continue,” he said.
Young’s appointment was attacked by the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, as a PR gimmick.
“Free schools are failing all over the country, at a soaring cost to the taxpayer. Mr Young’s appointment is a PR gimmick to try and put some much needed gloss over their abysmal performance,” she said.
“The government should focus on addressing the real problems facing education and junk this ideological obsession with free schools, which are no answer to the real problems facing education in our country.”
The NSN’s previous director was Nick Timothy, in a brief stint between his posts as special adviser to Theresa May at the Home Office and his current role as May’s joint chief of staff in Downing Street.
The NSN was founded by Rachel Wolf in 2009, who later became David Cameron’s adviser on education in the No 10 policy unit. Her successor, Natalie Evans, left after being appointed a Conservative peer in the House of Lords by Cameron.The appointment of the high-profile media figure is designed to give a shot in the arm to the free school movement, which has been increasingly co-opted by large chains of schools rather than the local community groups originally envisaged by the former education secretary, Michael Gove, and Cameron.
David Ross, the NSN’s chair of trustees, said: “We were most excited by [Young’s] ambitious ideas for building on NSN’s existing efforts to get schools, teachers, charities and community organisations involved in setting up schools where they can make a difference to their communities.”
There are about 500 free schools open or being planned. Recent waves of approvals by the DfE have seen free school openings dominated by existing academy chains – in September a single multi-academy trust, Reach2, was approved to open 21 new free schools.
Young was an early supporter of the free schools policy backed by Gove, and founded one of the first in the country to open: the West London free school, in 2011. It was followed by a primary school in 2013, which has been rated as outstanding by Ofsted.
West London free school pupils performed well in the school’s first set of GCSE results this summer, with 76% of the first cohort to sit the exams getting at least five grades of C or better, including English and maths.
Young hit the headlines this summer when he stepped down as chief executive of the school’s trust, after admitting: “I was very critical of England’s public education system under the last Labour government, and I hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better, and to bring about system-wide improvement.”
He has also called for business leaders with no teaching experience to be appointed as school heads.
“Part of running a successful school involves being a good manager. People who have had a lot of managerial experience should be able to bring a lot of that to bear on leading a school,” Young told the Times.