Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Toby Young's battle to set up a new school

Watch Toby Young's film on trying to set up a new school in full

In August, writer Toby Young announced he wanted to set up a new type of "free" school for his West London neighbourhood where access to a good education was not based on income. But he soon discovered it was a complicated process with his idea not being welcomed by all.

Here he outlines why he thinks the school is needed and what its aims are.

Many people think it's a Conservative policy to encourage parents to set up schools, but, in fact, it's also a Labour policy.

On the website of the Department for Children, Schools and Families it states: "The Government wants to encourage parent groups who want to see improvements in local provision to come forward and set up new schools."

Toby Young
Our school will be different from the local comprehensive in that it will place the emphasis more firmly on academic attainment

Until recently, the only sort of secondary schools parents could start were comprehensives - and a group of parents have succeeded in setting one up - the Elmgreen School in Lambeth.

However, it took them five years and they benefited from strong political support, both locally and nationally.

Another school to be set up at the instigation of a group of parents is the Jewish Community School in Barnet. They first embarked on the process in 2001 and it isn't due to open until next year.

We are anxious to get our West London Free School up and running faster than that.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls pointed the way earlier this year when he dropped the requirement that academy sponsors need £2m, making it possible for groups like ours to set up academies.

No parent group has sponsored an academy before, but we think it will be easier than trying to set up a comprehensive.

'Middle class oasis'

One of the misconceptions about academies is that they enjoy more flexibility over admissions than maintained schools, but that is not the case.

They are allowed to specialise in certain subjects, and select 10% of their students according to their aptitude for those subjects, but so are comprehensives.

If you are not happy with the lack of choice in your area, you don't have to move somewhere else or take out a second mortgage
Toby Young

Our school will specialise in music and humanities, with a particular emphasis on classics, and we may select 10% of our students on that basis, but apart from that the school will be non-selective.

We are often accused of trying to set up a "middle class oasis", but if we wanted to do that we would start an independent school.

As a state school, it will be bound by the School Admissions Code and, consequently, its intake will reflect the ethnically and socially mixed nature of the local community - which is what we want.

The main argument against allowing groups like mine to start schools is that they will have a negative impact on the neighbouring comprehensives, siphoning off all the most motivated students.

But that has not happened in Sweden where parents have been allowed to set up schools since 1992.

Today, 17% of Swedish children of secondary school age are educated in "free schools", but the net effect of the policy has been to improve the level of attainment in municipal schools - the Swedish equivalent of comprehensives.

Of course, Sweden is very different from Britain. But it is unduly pessimistic to assume that comprehensives will automatically suffer if they are exposed to a bit of competition.

Genuine need

Our school will be different from the local comprehensive in that it will place the emphasis more firmly on academic attainment.

If we end up attracting a disproportionately high number of motivated students, I'm sure the local school will start duplicating some of the things we are doing.

Ealing Council building
Toby met with Ealing Council and the DCSF to discuss plans for a new school

The other argument is that schools like ours will divert resources from the maintained sector, but that does not apply to us because we are trying to get a funding agreement under the existing rules and we will not be granted one unless we can prove there is a genuine need for a new secondary school in the area.

If we can, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) will make additional funds available through the Building Schools for the Future programme, it will not divert resources from any of the borough's existing comprehensives. Luckily for us, the population of Ealing is booming.

Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove has promised to drop the insistence that groups like ours will have to satisfy the current criteria regarding pupil place planning as a condition of getting funding - and that means parent groups will get the green-light even in areas where the population is falling.

In those localities, the new schools will be in direct competition with comprehensives and the allocation of resources will be a zero sum game.

That is the key difference between the Conservative and Labour policy - narrower and more technical than most people realise.

Public support

The Tories are also planning to drop the insistence that academy sponsors have to enlist the support of their local authorities and they are going to tear up a lot of the planning and building regulations to enable new schools to be set up quickly and easily.

Not exactly clear blue water - at least, not yet. But perhaps a big enough change to trigger a critical mass of parent groups to come forward.

There are a lot of people out there who are interested. Since I embarked on this process I have been contacted by dozens of similar groups and a new organisation -- the New Schools Network has sprung up to help us figure out the process.

I am a big believer in parent promoted schools and that is why I was happy to let Newsnight follow me around for a week.

I want to inspire other parents to take the same initiative. If you are not happy with the lack of choice in your area, you don't have to move somewhere else or take out a second mortgage so you can afford to educate your children privately.

You do not even have to masquerade as Christians so you can get them into the local faith school. There is another alternative and that is to start your own school.

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