was once known as an enfant terrible but lately seems to have matured into an homme sérieux. On 3 September 2014, Roland Howard learnt more at his latest venture, the West London Free School.
Photography: Andrew Firth
In your very entertaining memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,1Published by Little, Brown in 2001 you recall that your then prospective wife tried to assess whether you were a good person and decided you were. What do you think your virtues are?
I don’t know that I am a terribly good person. I suppose if someone asks me for help, my response is usually to try and help – not always. If I find a wallet in a bar, I won’t ransack it, I’ll hand it to the barman. I’m a reasonably conscientious husband and father – I’ve kept my marital vows, try to do ‘bath and bed’ most nights, try to be available to my children at the weekend.
And I suppose I have a serious side, which I’ve probably inherited from my father,2Lord Young of Dartington was a sociologist, social activist and politician who drafted the Labour Party’s manifesto for the 1945 general election and was instrumental in founding the Consumers’ Association, the National Consumer Council and the Open University. of wanting to do things that have some redeeming social purpose – like setting up schools.
In what respects are you – or are you becoming – Michael Young’s son?
I think I see some of his characteristics coming out in me. I’m a borderline workaholic. He was stubborn and tenacious and so am I – I’m very determined, and quite wilful.
He was also a social entrepreneur and enjoyed both immersing himself in theory and then putting it into practice, as I’ve really enjoyed doing in education. But he was firmly of the left, so politically I don’t think I’m becoming more like him.
Tenacity is not always a good point, is it?
It doesn’t always work out for the best. Sometimes I’ll set my heart on something and encounter a huge number of obstacles and that only strengthens my resolve, whereas actually I should probably take a step back and think: Maybe the reason I’m encountering so many obstacles is because it’s not a particularly great idea!
I co-wrote a play about the Spectator called Who’s the Daddy? and it was a great success, one of the best experiences of my life.3The ‘satirical fantasy’, co-written with Lloyd Evans, a fellow theatre critic at the Spectator, was declared the ‘best new comedy’ in the 2006 Theatregoers’ Choice Awards. We then wrote a second play but we found it really difficult to find someone willing to direct it and we probably should have paused for thought and concluded that it was because the play wasn’t nearly as good. It wasn’t a success.
But usually, I think, not giving up is a good quality.
I have a tendency towards self-obsession, and the best way to address that is to have interests that are all-absorbing. Having a family is a very good corrective to narcissism
I suppose I’ve become a slightly better listener than I was, more willing to take advice. I’m now the CEO of the West London Free School Academy Trust4See www.wlfs.org and ind.pn/iaoSrU. In July 2013, Ofsted found the school good, with some outstanding features. and I’ve never done a job like that before, so I’ve approached the CEO of another multi-academy trust and he’s going to give me an hour or two’s coaching every week.
What do you think are your other weaknesses, and how do you try to counter them?
I’m probably naturally a bit lazy, and I try and address that by always having a very full schedule – partly because if I’m not doing very much I begin to be overcome with self-loathing.
I suppose I have a tendency towards self-obsession, and the best way to address that is to have passions and interests that are all-absorbing. I think having a family is a very good corrective to narcissistic personality disorder – you know, you’re just not allowed any time to indulge your selfish desires.
Well, I think I’m certainly much happier, now that I’m married, than I was beforehand. She’s a very down-to-earth person and she helps anchor me. She’s also unwilling to tolerate some of my shortcomings, so I drink less than I would if I wasn’t married, I eat more healthily, I spend less time working, probably, than I’d like. She has made me spend time with my children, which means that I have got a really good relationship with them. She’s also a really good sounding-board, so if I’m thinking of writing something particularly outrageous she does tend to crop it if I run it by her first.
In How to Lose Friends…, you present yourself as in some ways a responsible careerist but in others a maverick anarchist. Is that contradiction still apparent in you?
I think the contradiction at that time was that I was pursuing these rather shallow goals. I wanted to be a celebrity journalist, go to lots of glamorous parties, see my name in gossip columns and so forth; and I think that in my heart of hearts I knew they weren’t very worthwhile goals – and so I would constantly sabotage my attempts to achieve them. That was my explanation, anyway, for why I shot myself in the foot so frequently during that period of my life. I certainly score fewer own goals now that I’m doing something that feels a bit more worthwhile. I don’t think there’s a little imp inside me trying to disrupt my conscious plans any more. And I think that to a great extent I have become more mature in the last 15 years.
Are you essentially a contrarian, though? If you were operating in a harder-nosed, more reactionary world now than education, would you be promoting a green agenda, maybe? Perhaps cycling to work?
Maybe. I like to think I’m not just a contrarian, impulsively doing the opposite of whatever the majority of people around me are doing. Actually, within the West London Free School Academy Trust we do encourage people to cycle to work. I cycle to work myself. We have a no-drop-off policy at the school gate, and not just to comply with the conditions [on our planning consent]. And I try to be a responsible employer.
You know, I’m now 50, I’ve got four children aged 11 and under, my wife’s a full-time mum, and it would be quite nice to earn some money so that she and I could enjoy my retirement and have a bit of security in our old age and our children could buy flats in London and go to good universities. But I think I would find it difficult, probably, to muster the enthusiasm for doing something that was designed solely to make money. I think I’d be bored.
You’ve confessed to worshipping false idols in the past…
There was quite a good playwright [who] wrote a one-man play based on my experiences setting up this school – it was commissioned by Josie Rourke, who is now the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse – and he said I reminded him of Prince Hal [in Henry IV Part 1 and 2], who puts away childish things when he sort of has to. I was quite flattered by that comparison!
If you’ve put away your false idols, do you have any true idols now?
Well, I’ve got some intellectual gurus that I really look up to (which actually feels a bit like a return to my late teens and early twenties, when I was very interested in political philosophy). When I was at Harvard [in 1987/8] two quite intellectual books became surprise best-sellers: Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind6Published by Simon & Schuster in 1987 and E D Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy.7Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know (Houghton Mifflin, 1987) I loved The Closing of the American Mind and became fascinated by another writer called Leo Strauss who was Bloom’s intellectual touchstone. But in the past five years or so I’ve become much more interested in the work of Hirsch (who describes himself, I think, as a social liberal but an educational conservative – his ideas are quite similar to Michael Gove’s) – though describing him as an ‘idol’ might be putting it a little too strongly. I had the pleasure of interviewing him for the Sunday Times Festival of Education last year and that was a nice experience.
There are other writers I admire. There’s a cognitive scientist called Daniel Willingham who I like a lot. I think [the conservative philosopher and political theorist] Michael Oakeshott has written very eloquently about liberal education.
You’ve described the West London Free School as your most important achievement. Why is that?
I think because we are trying to model an educational approach that I passionately believe in, partly because I think it’s the best way of levelling the playing field between children from privileged, educated middle-class families and children who aren’t from such families – and if we succeed it will become much harder for other schools not to follow suit.
Why does the curriculum include Latin?
It’s important for a number of reasons. For one thing, I think it trains children in how to think logically and systematically. I also think it’s a great way of introducing them to languages. And it comes with these fascinating stories from the ancient world – you can’t help but study the rise and fall of the Roman Empire at the same time.
It’s also a great leveller, because children whose first language isn’t English, who may have difficulty competing with other children in English literature or history or geography, don’t have the same handicap when it comes to learning Latin because they’re all starting in the same place.
And also there’s so much of the world that comes into focus when you know a little Latin. Mottos and names and statues and museums begin to make more sense and become easier to navigate.
The school motto is Sapere aude: ‘Dare to know’…
That was my idea. I think I liked it because it seemed to go well with the [idea] of someone who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps. I suppose that if you are from quite a humble background, working hard at school and pursuing knowledge is more difficult sometimes than if it’s expected of you from the day you’re born. You do have to dare to learn.
The magazine Modern Review [which you co-founded in 1991 with Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman] described its contents as ‘low culture for highbrows’. Is the WLFS introducing high culture to lowbrows?
I’ve often thought that if I was starting another magazine today it would try to do the exact opposite of what the Modern Review set out to do. Actually, at the time I think I was completely passionate about wanting mass culture to be treated more seriously, particularly in the broadsheet press and by intellectuals, and I really resented the snobbish dismissal of it as sort of ‘proletcult’ or ‘schlock’. But we were almost instantly far too successful. I mean, I can’t claim sole credit for that, but –
It seems plain crazy to expect children as young as seven to be able to grasp issues as complex as climate change when you haven’t taught them the difference between latitude and longitude
No, no, but you captured the zeitgeist…
We captured the zeitgeist and everything changed very quickly – and now there is scarcely any high culture in the broadsheets and no critic would dare be even slightly snobbish about the latest 13-part HBO boxed set.
Do you still see great merit in The Wire, let’s say?
Yeah! I mean, that is absolutely my culture – I’m not a particularly highbrow person when it comes to movies, TV shows and books. But I do rather worry now that high culture is in danger of dying out completely.
What are your favourite pieces of high culture?
I had a good time as the theatre critic of the Spectator [in 2001–06], trying to educate myself about the work of William Shakespeare and seeing as many of his plays, and as many different versions of the great plays, as I could, and, you know, reading around the plays beforehand and sometimes talking to the actors and directors. And that was great, a great opportunity. Hamlet, I think, is probably his greatest play – that’s not very controversial! I really like Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray. I like [Graham] Greene and [Evelyn] Waugh.
I still like reading literary novels when I have the time. Martin Amis has always been a bit of a hero. I’ve had a sort of troubled relationship with Amis – he went through a kind of trendy-leftie phase in the late Eighties and seemed to be embracing the whole suite of liberal-left received ideas, for a time. He wrote a sort of anti-nuclear [arms] book called Einstein’s Monsters , and there’s quite a lot about environmental damage in London Fields . I think he’s got over that now and become more sensible.
And what in mass culture has really affected you?
I really like the Clash. I saw them a few times in their pomp when I was a punk, and I always feel a great sense of my life coming full circle when Queens Park Rangers – because I’ve become a QPR fan – at the end of their games play ‘London Calling’, which is the club’s unofficial anthem. That would be one of my ‘desert island discs’.
You’ve argued quite powerfully that the recent reforms of the national curriculum have freed teachers from a lot of unhelpful dogma; but some people would say there are aspects of those reforms that are politicised.
The stuff in the new history curriculum isn’t nearly as contentious as some people imagine. It’s not just patriotic stocking-fillers about the kings and queens of England. There are other cultures and civilisations in there – and actually even the obligation to teach the history of the British Isles in chronological order has gone.
It’s remarkably anodyne, actually.
One thing that has caused a lot of controversy is the omission of climate change from the curriculum for children under 14 years of age. What do you think about that?
The difficulty with trying to introduce children at primary school to the concepts of climate change, sustainability and so on is that it’s asking them to run before they can walk. It seems plain crazy to expect children as young as seven to be able to grasp issues as complex as that when you haven’t taught them the difference between latitude and longitude, you haven’t told them how best to identify and remember the four points of the compass, the seven continents, the five oceans.
I think one of the mistakes that many teachers make is that they want to jump straight to teaching children higher-order thinking skills – how to think critically and analytically, and even creatively – without first furnishing them with the necessary facts. It’s difficult to think if you haven’t got anything to think about. You’ve got to teach children how to walk before you can expect them to run, and I think – I hope – that teachers are beginning to acknowledge that.
Education is dominated by a fairly small, tight-knit group of people, most of whom share the same outlook and philosophy and are quite ruthless in punishing those who don’t share them
What is your problem with what Mr Gove has called ‘the Blob’? It seems to me that the liberal educational establishment has very little real power and has just been set up as a paper tiger.
No one’s suggesting that there’s an organisation called ‘the Blob’ that operates like a political party; but there is a collection of received ideas that Hirsch calls ‘the thought world’ and it’s very powerful in education. Curiously, academics tend to be much more beholden to fashionable opinion than most. You’d think they’d be more independent-minded, but actually the opposite is the case – and it’s probably more true of academics in the field of education than in any other. One of the reasons, I think, is that education is dominated by a fairly small, tight-knit group of people, most of whom share the same outlook and philosophy and are quite ruthless in punishing those who don’t share them.
Recently, it’s sort of morphed into constructivism8A philosophy of learning that holds that each of us constructs our own mental models of the world and that learning is a process of adjusting those models to make sense of new experiences and has been infected by the virus of postmodernism. It’s extraordinary how the higher-education sector was for years just completely intoxicated by postmodernism. In practical terms, what that means is that teachers feel they ought to be teaching an ‘Ofsted outstanding’ lesson, which means a lesson in which they’re not standing at the front of the class reading from a text they’ve prepared earlier and expecting the children to write it down but they’re more like MCs, expected essentially to entertain the children and encourage them to learn independently through lots of exercises and games. All of which, I think, is not completely useless but it’s not nearly as effective as direct instruction, as various longitudinal research studies have shown.
I think that’s beginning to fade now. I think there is less consensus within the education field than there was and there is a real debate unfolding.
It’s apparent that nowadays you have a vision, and it seems to me to be largely a moral vision; but isn’t there a contradiction between that and your evident commitment to the idea that business knows best?
I think I’m a progressive conservative but I don’t think that means ruling out the possibility that a for-profit educational management organisation could run schools better than the state, albeit for less noble motives. I think the classic Hayekian position is that in a perfect market the consumer is king, and businesses have a vested interest in creating the best possible products at the cheapest possible price.
That might be true if we didn’t have a huge advertising and PR industry dedicated to persuading people to buy things that in some cases are deeply destructive.
But you could say the same of the automobile industry, with billions of dollars being spent on advertising campaigns and lots of misinformation, and for years large manufacturers ignoring basic health and safety; but actually we’ve ended up with much better cars now than we had 25 years ago. So, it may be that the profit motive can bring about good outcomes.
So, you’re a Conservative because it works?
Well, I’m also nervous that if the state is the monopoly provider of education, inevitably politicians will use state power to try and disseminate their own particular ideologies.
Can you give me an example of when that has happened in public education?
I think that a lot of the changes to the national curriculum made by the last government were sort of leftish in flavour, and by the end of that 13-year period subjects like citizenship might as well have been called ‘Why you should vote Labour’. And I think the state – or certainly the liberal intelligentsia through the apparatus of the state – has successfully disseminated a fairly dogmatic multiculturalism which we’re beginning to realise has lots of shortcomings.
I think there’s a wolf in all of us, and therefore all grand political projects that take as their starting point the perfectibility of mankind are fundamentally misguided
I’m a believer in a multiethnic Britain but not in a multicultural Britain. To be honest, I don’t think that the present government has made a particularly good fist of introducing an alternative to multiculturalism and trying to reinforce a sense of Britishness that transcends cultural differences. I think they’ve been a bit half-hearted about it, though I think it was a priority for Michael Gove. I mean, with [the apparently British] ‘Jihadi John’ beheading journalists on YouTube, it’s becoming a more and more urgent political priority!
How would you tackle it?
I think, by asking Ofsted to ensure that schools are promoting values like religious tolerance, free speech, the rule of law and so forth. Teaching children the benefits of liberal democracy, respect for women and minorities, the importance of individual rights. I think that would all help – but it’s complex and difficult and it needs a great deal of thought. It involves the building of coalitions and the expenditure of political capital.
OK, so you’re a Conservative because you think it works and because you are suspicious of state power. Are there any other essential beliefs that place you on the right?
Yeah, I’d say I’m a Catholic in that I don’t believe in the perfectibility of mankind.
I had an argument a few days ago, with a friend of mine who lives in Kenya who used to be a war correspondent, about whether the jihadis fighting for [Islamic State] are psychopaths. He thinks they are but I don’t. Probably when Jihadi John is back in Maida Vale or wherever it is he comes from, working in a sports shop, he exhibits all the normal amounts of empathy and compassion.
I think there’s a wolf in all of us and things like Islamic radicalism are really no different from Nazism or Communism: they’re really just convenient licences to kill, to rape, to maim, to torture. And I think that that impulse is in all of us, and therefore all grand political projects that take as their starting point the perfectibility of mankind are fundamentally misguided.
And that’s why you don’t like Labour, because it has roots in Marxism?
Yes. And I’m very suspicious of utopian socialism and Romanticism – I think that Romanticism in particular has had a pernicious influence on education.
But doesn’t the right go to the opposite extreme – a cynical acceptance of ‘just the way the world is’?
I think you can believe that those impulses are never far from the surface, and that human nature is comprised of quite twisted timber, but at the same time believe in the capacity for goodness and for altruism. I think those two clusters of impulses are at war in most of us. And, you know, that’s the story of mankind.
And the best way to make progress as a society lies on the right?
I think it doesn’t make sense to base a political project on a denial of human nature. I think one of the good things about capitalism is that it seems to have come to terms with some of Man’s baser instincts and largely to have turned them to benign ends. As [John Maynard] Keynes said: ‘It is better that a man should tyrannise over his bank balance than over his fellow citizens.’
Isn’t it just as naive to base a political programme on the ‘perfectibility’ of corporations? Surely, they present a more potent threat to society?
I agree that it’s naive to think that corporations are perfectible, but I think you’d be pleasantly surprised by the preoccupation with ethics in most large, profitable corporations. The phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ is now more applicable to multinationals than it is to loony-left Labour councils.
It’s common for people on the left to imagine that people on the right don’t care. Actually, I think there’s an equal commitment to social justice at both ends of the spectrum
Are there aspects of the right you feel uneasy with?
Well, ‘the right’ is a very broad term…
Well, so is ‘the left’.
I think of myself not as right-wing but more as a classical liberal, in the sort of 19th-century sense. Actually, I think that one way to revive conservatism would be for conservatives to embrace the principle of equality – I think there’s a lot to be said for conservatism for almost egalitarian reasons. Global capitalism has had a tremendous impact in reducing poverty across the developing world over the past 25 years or so, particularly in places like China. But also I think that a belief in equal rights should be at the heart of conservatism.
So, you can’t be entirely at home on the right…
I mean, there are different strands of conservatism. I think of myself as a liberal conservative and certainly I’m not comfortable with illiberal conservatives. I’m a social liberal and an economic conservative. I was a big supporter of gay marriage, for instance, and was a little uncomfortable with some of the opposition to it within the Conservative Party.
I don’t think my commitment to social justice is any less passionate than that of someone in the Labour Party. I think it’s a common mistake made by people on the left, to imagine that people on the right have a sort of empathy deficit and just don’t care. Actually, I think, there’s an equal commitment to social justice at both ends of the spectrum; there’s just a disagreement about how best to bring it about.
So, the Big Society is the way ahead?
Yeah. I’m probably the last person in Britain to still believe in the Big Society. I’m a bit disappointed that the Conservative Party seems to have abandoned it lock, stock and barrel. I think it was considered to be a bit of a flop electorally but in certain areas I think it’s been a big success. You know, free schools have really taken off – I think it would be hard to put that genie back in the bottle even if Labour get elected next year. And there are other areas where the Big Society is alive and well – there are lots of libraries now that are part-run by volunteers, and lots of services that local authorities have outsourced to voluntary groups that are working very well.
Can you boil your core values down to three things?
I guess, a commitment to sharing the best that has been thought and said with as many people as possible and keeping the flame of Western civilisation alive.
And maybe generosity of spirit.
|⇑1||Published by Little, Brown in 2001|
|⇑2||Lord Young of Dartington was a sociologist, social activist and politician who drafted the Labour Party’s manifesto for the 1945 general election and was instrumental in founding the Consumers’ Association, the National Consumer Council and the Open University.|
|⇑3||The ‘satirical fantasy’, co-written with Lloyd Evans, a fellow theatre critic at the Spectator, was declared the ‘best new comedy’ in the 2006 Theatregoers’ Choice Awards.|
|⇑4||See www.wlfs.org and ind.pn/iaoSrU. In July 2013, Ofsted found the school good, with some outstanding features.|
|⇑6||Published by Simon & Schuster in 1987|
|⇑7||Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know (Houghton Mifflin, 1987)|
|⇑8||A philosophy of learning that holds that each of us constructs our own mental models of the world and that learning is a process of adjusting those models to make sense of new experiences|
Toby Young was born in 1963 and was educated at King Edward VI Community College in Totnes and William Ellis School in Highgate, north London.
He read philosophy, politics and economics at Brasenose College, Oxford, gaining a first in 1986, and then (after six months as a news trainee at the Times) studied political philosophy at Harvard as a Fulbright scholar. From 1988 to ’90, he worked as a teaching assistant at Trinity College, Cambridge.
In 1991, with Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman he founded the Modern Review, which he edited until (as he put it) he ‘torched the place’ in 1995.
He moved to New York, to work first for Vanity Fair as a contributing editor and then, from 1998, for the New York Press as a columnist.
He returned to London in 2000, to review theatre for the Spectator (2001–06), restaurants for the Evening Standard (2002–07) and the Independent on Sunday (2008–09) and films for the Times (2009). He wrote a column for the Mail on Sunday from 2004 to ’05, and in 2012–13 was, for a year, the Sun on Sunday’s first political columnist. He has been a columnist and an associate editor at the Spectator since 2007, and since 2010 has blogged for the Daily Telegraph.
He is the author of two best-selling memoirs, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2001) – which was staged in the West End in 2004 (starring him) and filmed for FilmFour in 2008, starring Simon Pegg – and The Sound of No Hands Clapping (2006); and How to Set Up a Free School (2011). His latest book, What Every Parent Needs to Know: How to help your child get the most out of primary school, written with Miranda Thomas, was published by Viking in 2014.
With Lloyd Evans, he wrote the farces Who’s the Daddy? (2005) and A Right Royal Farce (2006). In 2009, he co-produced and co-wrote the drama-documentary When Boris Met Dave for Channel 4.
He was the ‘lead proposer’ and co-founder of the West London Free School, which opened in 2011, and since January has been the part-time CEO of the trust that runs both it and two local primary schools.
He sits on the US-UK Fulbright Commission.
He married in 2001 and has four children.
Up-to-date as at 1 October 2014