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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 12th May 2017

Mary Bousted is dead wrong about free schools

I was disappointed to read Mary Bousted’s unpleasant and divisive article about free schools. I wonder if she paused for a second to think about the impact of her words on the thousands of teachers who work at free schools and whom, in many cases, have helped set them up?

Two-thirds of free schools have been established by groups led by teachers, many of them members of the ATL or the NUT teaching unions. It cannot be great for morale to know that the soon-to-be joint leader of your union thinks the school you have been pouring your heart into is an example of “our worst fears realised”.

Mary has the gall to characterise anyone who questions her objections to free schools as indulging in “post-truth” politics, and, in the next breath, implies that free schools are more likely to be closed than other schools. In fact, in the last five years 1.71 per cent of maintained schools have closed, compared to just 1.43 per cent of free schools. If Mary is genuinely concerned about the impact of school closures on children, that would be a reason to support the free schools programme, where the rate of attrition is below average, not oppose it. (To read more, click here.)

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Friday 12th May 2017

A preview of my Brexit debate with AC Grayling

I’m due to debate the philosopher A.C. Grayling on Saturday about whether there should be a second EU referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal. It is part of a two-day event being held at Central Hall, Westminster, on ‘Brexit and the political crash’. It is billed as a ‘convention’, an opportunity for all sides in this debate to discuss Britain’s future, but the reference to the ‘political crash’ is a giveaway. Brexit isn’t a revolt against out-of-touch elites or even a new departure that may or may not be good for the country. No, it is a ‘crash’, as in ‘car crash’ or ‘economic crash’. In reality, the ‘convention’ will be a viper’s nest of die-hard Remainiacs. The roster of speakers includes Alastair Campbell, Gina Miller, Nick Clegg, Alan Rusbridger and Ian McEwan.

I will set out the arguments against a second referendum as best as I can, but my heart won’t really be in it. By that, I don’t mean it’s something I’m on the fence about. Rather, it’s so preposterous that it’s beneath contempt. Does A.C. Grayling really think there will be enough time for Britain to agree a draft deal with the rest of the EU, organise a second referendum and, if the deal’s rejected, negotiate another deal before the two-year, Article 50 clock runs out? Or is the idea that if the deal is rejected, the clock will stop ticking and Britain will simply remain in the EU on exactly the same terms as before, with the results of the first referendum being completely disregarded? That’s not a serious political position. That’s magical thinking. (To read more, click here.)

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Thursday 4th May 2017

You’re an editor now George Osborne... it’s time you made some enemies

Dear George Osborne, I thought it worth passing along some advice about your new job. I’ve never edited a news-paper, but I’ve been in the business for 32 years and I’ve seen a fair few come and go. I’ve also worked for the Evening Standard in various capacities. Indeed, my first job in journalism was doing shift work on Londoner’s Diary.

That’s not a bad place to start on Fleet Street (your predecessor did) and you could do worse than sit at the desk for a few weeks. Liz Smith, the veteran American newspaper columnist, describes gossip as ‘news wearing a red dress and running ahead of the pack’ and there’s something in that. A good diary story, like a good news story, is something that a powerful person would prefer not to be published, and they’ll often use every weapon at their disposal to stop it, from calling the proprietor to threatening a libel suit. They may also resort to bribery — and it’s worth bearing in mind that not all bribery is unacceptable. (To read more, click here.)

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Thursday 27th April 2017

Why a progressive tactical voting alliance is doomed to failure

My heart soared when I first heard the phrase ‘progressive alliance’ in this election campaign. Not the reaction you’d expect, perhaps, but any attempt to persuade people to vote tactically on the eve of a general election is doomed to failure. A complete waste of time. I should know because I tried to get a similar venture off the ground three years ago.

Mine was a conservative version, obviously. In 2014 I was worried that the split on the right would enable Ed Miliband to become our next prime minister. So I launched a Unite the Right campaign and set about trying to persuade supporters of Ukip and the Tories to vote for which-ever candidate in their constituency was best placed to defeat the Labour candidate. Our slogan was ‘Country Before Party’. (To read more, click here.)

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Thursday 27th April 2017

Free schools don't waste money, they save it for everyone

According to a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published today, the Department for Education is spending “well over the odds” on free schools and wasting money it should be spending on refurbishing and maintaining existing schools.

Let’s break that claim down into two parts.

First, is it true that free schools are an expensive way of creating new places? The PAC says we need an additional 420,000 places in England’s schools between now and 2020, so it is important that the Department for Education does not waste its capital budget. Luckily, it’s not. According to a National Audit Office report published in February, the construction costs of a newly built free school are 29% lower per square metre than the schools rebuilt under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. (To read more, click here.)

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Wednesday 26th April 2017

The Public Accounts Committee report is pure Labour propaganda

On the Today programme this morning I debated Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the Public Accounts Committee which has just issued a damning report on free schools.

The report is wrong in almost every particular. It says the free schools programme offers ‘poor value for money’, but earlier this year the National Audit Office pointed out that free schools cost a third less than new schools built under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme.

The report says many free schools are in ‘inadequate premises’ and ‘the learning environment’ is ‘less effective’. In fact, 29pc of those inspected by Ofsted so far have been ranked ‘Outstanding’ compared to 21pc of all schools, and their exam results are top of the class. In the free school sixth forms that posted results last year, for instance, 27.8pc of pupils got A/A/B or better, compared to a national average of 19.9pc.

The PAC report says free schools aren’t creating new places where they’re needed most and questions the Department for Education’s ‘grip’. But over 80pc of the free schools opened or approved to open since 2014 have been in areas where there’s a demographic need for new places. Some do create a small number of surplus places, but without that parents wouldn’t have any choice about where to send their children. As the National Audit Office report said, ‘Some spare capacity is needed to allow parents to exercise choice.’ (To read more, click here.)

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Thursday 20th April 2017

The real victims of this election? Brexit-hating bankers' wives

The people I feel most sorry for in the wake of Theresa May’s shock announcement are not moderate Labour MPs, nor even the pollsters, who really will be in trouble if they get another election wrong. No, it’s the bankers’ wives of west London. If the EU is going to be the No.1 issue in the campaign, and the Tories are standing on a pro-Brexit platform, how will the poor dears vote?

On the one hand, they were very, very angry about the outcome of the EU referendum and, even today, they’re not above buttonholing leavers at cocktail parties and giving them the hairdryer treatment. They regard David Cameron as criminally negligent —‘How could he let this happen?’ — and Theresa May as a ‘turncoat’. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I’ve ‘betrayed’ my children, although it’s hard for them to sustain the tone of moral indignation when, in the next breath, they talk about the ‘terrible uncertainty’ now afflicting their live-in housekeeper Agnieszka Kowalski. (To read more, click here.)

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Monday 17th April 2017

The best thing about Center Parcs? The Wi-Fi worked

Against my better judgment, I agreed to go to Center Parcs for an Easter weekend break. We chose the one in Sherwood Forest, not because of any sentimental attachment to Robin Hood, but because it was the most inexpensive. Even then, it was hardly cheap: £804 for three nights and that didn’t include breakfast.

First, the good news. I was sceptical about the website’s promise of free Wi-Fi, imaging it would be similar to the ‘free Wi-Fi’ on Virgin Trains, but it actually worked. The connection speed was impressive, as good as my set-up at home, and it didn’t matter where you were in the resort, as far as I could tell. My guess is they’ve stuffed routers into every nook and cranny. That was a shrewd investment since it’s a good way of keeping grumpy old dads like me happy. I was able to watch the Brighton vs QPR game using the Sky Go app on my iPad, and that left me well-disposed towards Center Parcs, prepared to forgive any number of sins. (To read more, click here.)

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Thursday 6th April 2017

The Rise and Fall of the Meritocracy

You can listen again to my half-hour programme for Radio 4 about last year's populist revolts in Britain and America, asking whether they were predicted by my father 60 years ago in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy, here. I ask how meritocratic Britain and America are and whether some of the problems we're currently contending with, such as widespread anger among indigenous, working class voters and out-of-touch, highly educated elites, are inextricably bound up with meritocracy. In particular, I look at whether meritocracy inevitably leads to a genetically-based caste system, as my father believed. In the course of the programme I interview a number of eminent thinkers and social scientists including Michael Sandel, Robert Plomin, Rebecca Allen, Charles Murray and Peter Saunders. I've also written a piece for the BBC's website discussing some of the problems with meritocracy that you can read here.

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Thursday 6th April 2017

Did my father predict the populist revolts of the last year?

I’ve just made a programme for Radio 4 about the populist revolts that swept Britain and America last year. Were they predicted in a book written by my father, Michael Young, almost 60 years ago? I’m thinking of The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian satire that imagines a 21st-century Britain governed by a highly educated technocratic elite. Eventually, the intellectual and moral hubris of these Masters of the Universe is too much for ordinary people and they’re overthrown in a bloody revolution in 2034.

It often surprises people to learn that my father’s critique of meritocracy was underpinned by his belief that human differences are rooted in genetics, a view many on the left associate with neo-liberal economics and the libertarian right. How could the man who wrote the 1945 Labour manifesto and played an important part in creating the welfare state be a hereditarian? Surely the creed of socialism depends on believing that all men are born with the same innate capacities, and the reason some succeed and others fail is because of environmental differences? (To read more, click here.)

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