Free school pioneer and Spectator columnist Toby Young has been appointed to the board of the new higher education watchdog.
The Office for Students (OfS) has legally come into force with a remit to hold universities to account over issues including vice chancellors’ pay and free speech on campus.
The board is made up of six individuals but it is the appointment of Young, who co-founded the West London Free School and runs the New School Network, that has caused most controversy.
University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt has lead the condemnation, saying: ‘If this organisation was to have any credibility it needed a robust board looking out for students’ interests.
‘Instead we have this announcement sneaked out at New Year with Tory cheerleader Toby Young dressed up as the voice of teachers and no proper representation from staff or students.’
The former journalist is known as much for launching Britain’s first free school as he is for his controversial comments. While some have praised him for his work as director of a school choice charity, others recall his name more for his polemical views.
In less than 24 hours since his appointment, Young has trended on Twitter with many education experts claiming he is not fit for the role based on previous comments and his lack of experience.
Here are some of the reasons he has proved such a divisive figure:
Comments on female students
In his book ‘How To Lose Friends and Alienate People’, Young wrote: ‘I became a Teaching Fellow in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. This brought me into daily contact with plenty of pretty students but anything of a sexual nature was strictly verboten.
‘According to yet another set of rules, I wasn’t allowed to socialise with any of my charges outside the classroom unless there were at least three of them present at all times. I could just about see the ban on seeing one of them by themselves – what white, European male could resist the chance to pounce on a defenceless American maiden? Presumably, there was a danger I might convert them to troilism.’
He said teaching ‘isn’t that tough’
In 2013, Young said of the profession: ‘Teachers complain a lot about how tough their job is. But, you know, the day begins in most schools at nine o’clock, ends at 3.30pm. They have six weeks’ holiday during the summer, two weeks’ holiday at Easter and at Christmas. Yes, they don’t just work when they’re at school, but even so, compared to a lot of other jobs, it’s not that tough.’
Everytime #TobyYoung trends, my Fairy Godmother says to me “you must tweet that video.”
So, here you go folks. pic.twitter.com/kdJjOwgJmf
— Teacher Toolkit (@TeacherToolkit) January 1, 2018
He later backtracked on his comments, and said he’d been ‘quite dismissive about workload complaints’ and he now knew ‘how hard teachers work and what a difficult job it is’.
His own schools
Mr Young’s West London Free School (WLFS) has gone through four head teachers in six years. Thomas Packer took on the role when the school first opened in 2011, but left after 16 months. Sam Naismith, a former England hockey coach, managed for another 15 months, from January 2013 to May 2014. Hywel Jones took over in 2014, and the latest headteacher has just been appointed.
The trust runs three other local schools, and WLFS is one of the most oversubscribed taxpayer-funded schools in England.
Young says that 25% of the pupils receive free school meals, and last year, the school was eligible to receive Pupil Premium for 38% of its pupils. In 2016, 77% of the pupils obtained five GCSEs marked A* to C, including English and Mathematics.
His own qualifications
Nazir Afzal, a former Chief Crown Prosecutor of the Crown Prosecution Service for North West England, was among those to tweet his displeasure.
Mr Afzal said he had also applied for the role, detailing his experience and background. Barbara Bleiman, Education Consultant at the English and Media centre, also highlighted the requirements for the job and asked Jo Johnson, higher education minister, if he felt Young was fit to take it on.
Please could you tell me in what ways Toby Young meets the criteria, as set out in the applicant pack, (below) for this public appointment? @JoJohnsonUK @MichaelBarber9 There is a legal obligation for the Secretary of State to pay heed to these criteria. Has that been met? pic.twitter.com/U1nFraTSZB
— Barbara Bleiman (@BarbaraBleiman) January 1, 2018
Department for Education: ““Toby Young’s diverse experience includes posts at Harvard and Cambridge”. Wikipedia: he was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard and he started, but did not finish, a PhD at Cambridge in the 80s. On the normal understanding of the word, these are not ‘posts’
— Tim Crane (@timcrane102) January 2, 2018
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His comments on disability
In a column for the Spectator in 2012, Young wrote: “Inclusive. It’s one of those ghastly, politically correct words that has survived the demise of New Labour. Schools have got to be “inclusive” these days.
“That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from Dyslexia to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.”
He went on to call on then-Education Secretary Michael Gove to ‘repeal the Equality Act because any exam that isn’t ‘accessible’ to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be ‘elitist’ and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law’.
Young has since insisted he has ‘nothing against disabled students’ , and has written about having Asperger Syndrome in the past.
I have nothing against disabled students, Steve, and have worked continuously to increase access for working class students to high tariff institutions since being involved in outreach at Oxford in the mid-80s. Don’t believe the fake news on Twitter.
— Toby Young (@toadmeister) January 2, 2018
I am an academic, but also father of a mixed race child with autism. How can a man who thinks of my son in this way be the right person to run one school? Now he’s got hold of the universities. #tobyyoung pic.twitter.com/wVUwOOhvym
— John Canning (@johngcanning) January 1, 2018
— Prof Katy Shaw (@ProfKatyShaw) January 2, 2018
He snorted cocaine
In Young’s book, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, he wrote about what he called ‘a cocaine-taking incident in the club involving Damien Hirst and Keith Allen’, which resulted in him being thrown out of London’s Groucho Club.
Young was in charge of the photograph shoot for Vanity Fair and claims Hirst and Allen ‘demanded I supply them with alcohol and cocaine as a condition of posing for the camera.’
He added: ‘I didn’t help matters by dipping into the Bolivian marching powder myself.’
He’s been sacked multiple times
After completing his Oxford degree, Young worked at The Times for six months as a news trainee before being fired for ‘hacking the computer system and circulating senior executives’ salaries round the office’. Regardless, he decided the profession was the right one for him, before getting sacked again from Vanity Fair in 1998.
He proposed ‘progressive eugenics’
Young has suggested an idea of altering the DNA of children from low-income parents who have ‘below-average IQs’.
His comments like ‘I’m not suggesting we improve the genetic stock of an entire race, just the least well off’ faced controversy because he compared intelligence to hereditary diseases.
Tanja Bueltmann, Professor in History & Faculty at Northumbria University, called on Jo Johnson to repeal Young’s position on this basis.
.@JoJohnsonUK Having just been alerted to this piece on “progressive eugenics” by #TobyYoung, I am calling on you to reverse your decision re: his OfS board memebership. This is entirely unacceptable ⬇️ 1/ pic.twitter.com/7bZofXdQs3
— Prof Tanja Bueltmann (@cliodiaspora) January 1, 2018
He’s made multiple comments about women’s breasts
In 2009, Young tweeted: ‘What happened to Winkleman’s breasts Put on some weight, girlie. #comicrelief’. Throughout the same year he made further comments on Twitter, including one which read: ‘In hotel room with five-months pregnant Padma. Her boobs are MASSIVE. Be careful what you wish for …’ in reference to his colleague, Padma Lakshmi.
He pretended to be a woman to attract lesbians
Writing a first-hand account in GQ in 2000, Young detailed how he’d ‘always wanted to be a lesbian’. One night, he decided to dress up as a woman and go out to some of New York’s ‘hottest lesbian clubs’. Young said the ‘plan was to approach gorgeous young lesbians, draw them into my confidence, then make out with them on the dance floor.’ Unsurprisingly, people have questioned how he would approach the issue of safe spaces and inclusivity in universities.
in light of this would love to hear your approach to ‘safe spaces’ @toadmeister
— Sophie WilkINson (@sophwilkinson) January 2, 2018
However, he has his supporters
Maria Caulfield, conservative MP for Lewes, tweeted her thoughts on his appointment: ‘As a working class kid who went to school in the socialist state of Lambeth where more kids ended up in prison than university, why the outrage at the appointment of
@toadmeister ? He’s set up schools that have helped thousands of working class kids’
As a working class kid who went to school in the socialist state of Lambeth where more kids ended up in prison than university, why the outrage at the appointment of @toadmeister ? He’s set up schools that have helped thousands of working class kids
— Maria Caulfield MP (@mariacaulfield) January 1, 2018
Michael Gove, ex-Secretary of State for Education, and Jenni Russell, columnist for The Times, also supported Johnson’s decision to appoint Young.
Absolutely. Why do some people think setting up comprehensives with high academic standards is a crime? https://t.co/bPpogs3h3k
— Michael Gove (@michaelgove) January 1, 2018
I disagree with Toby Young @toadmeister on politics, Brexit & much more. But he’s passionate about trying to provide excellent education irrespective of class, and his record shows it.
— Jenni Russell (@jennirsl) January 1, 2018
Writing in The Spectator, columnist Stephen Daisley writes: ‘Toby Young sits outside the educational mainstream and that is the very reason he should be brought in and listened to.
‘Spurning his insights because of his rhetoric is short-sighted and self-defeating.’
One of the biggest criticisms of Young on social media is about comments he is reported to have made about working class ‘stains’.
Writing in his 1988 book ‘The Oxford Myth’, Young has been accused of describing how working-class students changed Oxford and that they were ‘universally unattractive’ and ‘small, vaguely deformed undergraduates’.
Young has vehemently denied this, insisting the current presentation of what he wrote is ‘fake news’.
‘That’s a complete distortion of what I wrote’, he posted on Twitter today. ‘I wasn’t referring to grammar school boys (or wc kids) and it would’ve been odd if I was as I was one myself. I’m committed to widening participation and increasing social mobility and have proved that by my actions many times since.’
The Department for Education has said of the appointment: ‘Toby Young’s diverse experience includes posts at Harvard and Cambridge as well as co-founding the successful West London free school. He will provide vital insight in ensuring universities are working for young people from all backgrounds.’
Toby Young did not reply to a request for comment from Yahoo News UK.