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Toby Young’s Schooldays

January 6, 2018

This post attempts to reconcile two contradictory claims.

The first is this.

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However, he is previously on record as having gone to university from a comprehensive, quite specifically:

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Young’s use of this scheme has attained semi-legendary qualities, as he was a grade off meeting the offer and also ignored the college’s request to obtain an additional O-level, so that according to a story he has often told, he relied on a clerical error and his father’s intervention to get a place.

Young appeared just to have admitted, therefore, to having misled Oxford about the type of school he was attending when he applied, in order to obtain easier entry.  That would be something of a story for someone in his new position at the OfS, not least coming on top of what was already known about his admission.

Otherwise he appeared to be inventing a grammar school history, to deflect criticism of unpleasant comments he had made about other students when younger. The news story he refers to is here, and here are fuller quotes:

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(Returning to Young’s first tweet above, the journalist might have been forgiven, one feels, for reading this as an uncomplimentary set of comments about people from grammar schools. Presumably the nuance missed was that Young and his friends meant only some people from grammar schools.)

On examination, Young turns out to have attended three secondary schools, the first two definite comprehensives (until he was 13 one in London, then one in Devon, after his family moved), and the last (where he did his A levels) a single sex grammar school back in London, which had started going comprehensive a few years earlier. In this BBC programme (at 21:55), Young says “I was in the last grammar school year” when he entered the sixth form of William Ellis.

So Young seems to have gone to Oxford from a grammar school (as far as it affected him), albeit one which was shifting to comprehensive status in the years below him.  Equally, it’s reasonable to observe that he wasn’t a typical grammar school boy, not having gone through selective entry at 11. Young explains in the same BBC programme that entry to William Ellis’s sixth form had only a minimum requirement of 5 O-levels at Grade C, which he  able to meet because, after resits, he had 4 such O-levels and a CSE at Grade 1, which was technically equivalent.

So it turns out Young could reasonably claim to be both a grammar school and comprehensive product, and at a grammar school or a comprehensive in his final school years, depending on how you look at it.  Indeed, going through articles while researching this, he could be observed claiming to be different things at different times, depending on the context. Thus, in the Oxford Union debate which is the source of the quote at the top he referred to receiving a lower offer as a comprehensive pupil, in order to argue that these schools were damaged by depressed expectations. In arguing for his particular model of free school, however, he has compared his experience in a sixth form grammar with his earlier comprehensive period to argue for the superiority of the former.

To complicate matters, Young has only sometimes described the entry scheme as being specifically for comprehensive pupils. In a biography, he described it as being a scheme for applicants “from state schools”, which he clearly was, and expands that it allowed people to bypass sitting the entrance exam and have a “rigorous interview” instead (everyone had a rigorous interview: the difference was that the traditional exam/interview route meant successful candidates knew they were in, whatever grades they got, as long as they were at least 2Es).

Even more vaguely, he has also said he entered under

a special scheme to encourage people who weren’t ‘conventional Oxford material’ to apply to read PPE. I certainly fell into that category. I failed all my O-levels first time round and after retaking, ended up with four Cs and a grade one in CSE Drama.

Along with his description of the type of school he went to, and the scheme under which he entered, Young’s account of his initial exam results varies a bit.  They are always bad, but sometimes he fails all his O-levels, sometimes there was one O-level and sometimes an O-level at Grade C in English Literature and a CSE in Drama, out of four O-levels and 4 CSEs attempted. Also, the extent to which the child of his particular background (see footnote), was not “conventional Oxford material”, simply because he had done very badly at O-level is arguable (I say this as someone from a pretty similar family background, if a few notches less posh). But that Young felt it “certainly” to be the case,  even at the age of 45, stands out for me. And it is a reasonable observation that to get even as far as an interview at an Oxford college under any scheme with 4 Cs at O-level and a CSE was indeed pretty remarkable. You might indeed expect the college to have been swamped by running interviews for applicants from comprehensives, or who had previously been at comprehensives, had it been well-known that it was commonly applying such a threshold to anyone who had attended that sort of school.

I feel I ought to be able to shed more light on this, as I went to Brasenose from a comprehensive two years later. But I don’t remember any specific college entry scheme that year for some or all state school pupils, or any of my comprehensive-educated friends ever mentioning one. That doesn’t means the scheme Young describes didn’t exist two years before, or when I applied: it would just be useful here if I could remember anything about one.  Maybe the account which relates it specifically to PPE explains this.  I studied a different subject, entering via the conventional exam route. In passing, I’m slightly puzzled that Young makes it sound as though he applied to one college directly, as I’m pretty sure that when I did it admissions were centrally adminstered: we listed a number of colleges and they then considered us, in a sort of mini-UCAS system. I can’t quite see where the sort of scheme he describes would fit in that, but it’s a consistent element of his account that it was a named member of staff at the college who had set up this scheme, whatever its precise rules were.

So Young’s two claims appear most obviously capable of being reconciled if:

  • There never actually was a scheme only open to comprehensive school pupils, or
  • The college treated him as a “comprehensive enough” pupil because of his earlier educational history, or
  • He took advantage of William Ellis’s shifting status, although it did not affect him directly.

The first would only raise the question why he ever claimed there was. The second would have been a kindly interpretation on the part of the college, choosing to place more weight on the impact of Young’s past school experience than his present school. In that case, I hope they were making at least similar general concessions to people applying under the scheme who were not subsequently doing their A-levels in settings with such intense academic support (and that Young is only incorrectly guessing when he says at one point that his was probably one of the lowest offers the college ever made). The last possibility on the list above would just have been a classic bit of middle class gaming of the education system.

Young went on to do very well at university: it’s only his recent appointment to the OfS that makes any of this remotely worth bringing up. But given that, it seems moderately interesting to wonder which of these applied.

Update 6 January

A further  description of Young’s entry is here

Some people will accuse me of hypocrisy because I was the beneficiary of positive discrimination. I applied to Brasenose because it had introduced a scheme to attract candidates from state schools and, after a gruelling interview, I received a low conditional offer. Nevertheless, I’m a good illustration of why such positive discrimination is wrong-headed. My father was a Labour peer and when I applied to Oxford I was at a grammar school on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I didn’t deserve special treatment, yet if Oxford and Cambridge set aside places for state school applicants it would be those like me who’d gain, not children on free school meals.

So here the scheme is desribed as generic to all state schools, to show that such schemes will benefit people who don’t need it (thus his previous poor O-level performance at a comprehensive is omitted from the story).



Young’s father attended a series of private schools (some of which sound pretty horrible) in the 1920s and 1930s, and was a graduate of the LSE who trained as a barrister before becoming one of the post-war UK’s great social reformers, for which he was awarded a peerage when Young was in his mid-teens. His mother attended Bedales before going to Cambridge and then worked as a BBC producer before having children, and continued to be a successful writer and artist.  He has recalled how he grew up in a house constantly visited by the great and good and has written about both his parents touchingly and with affection. In a neat tangible example of what these sort of advantages can mean in practice, Young tells a story at one point to the BBC about how his father was able to help him with a 6th form essay about House of Lords reform by sharing his reflections on being in the House of Lords. He claims it was the first one for which he ever got an A. He  does also say however that his parents didn’t take much direct interest in what was happening with his school work until his initial O-level disaster. At that point, he credits his father’s decision to send him to a kibbutz for three months with transforming his situation, not least because it broke his 3 year pot habit. He reports coming back determined to go to university (specifically Oxford) and as a first step resitting the three O-levels he had failed, achieving “with Herculean effort”,he says, a C in all of these, enabling him to start his A-levels at William Ellis.



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