2018 began with an episode that is weird even by the standards of British politics; the commentator Toby Young was made a non-executive director of the new university watchdog, the Office for Students. In the subsequent slow-burn car crash it became apparent Young seems to spend as much time on schoolboy misogyny as he does on education policy. Several days later, he has now resigned.
Young spent the years leading up to his appointment fashioning himself as an educationalist. Here are four things his career so far – and this latest episode – reveals:
1. Toby Young is a standard-bearer for Tory education.
Toby Young isn’t an unknown who happened to be appointed without due diligence. He worked hard make himself the face of the government’s academies and free schools programme. Boris Johnson attended the launch of his West London Free School – the one he admitted was “harder to run than he’d thought”, and where a young black boy was excluded for a haircut 3mm outside regulation (which Young subsequently defended.)
What other public faces might have fronted this brave new world? The £180k tax-funded headteacher, whose Jaguar V6 insurance is funded from the public purse? The school leaders spending budgets on Marco Pierre White meals, broadband at holiday homes, luxury flats, sex toys and other expenses that would make parliament blanch? The UK’s largest academy chain which is, according to Ofsted, failing poorer pupils? Young is not even the most absurd unaccountable child of Michael Gove’s revolution.
2. Toby Young is not a champion of working class learners.
Young defied criticism by saying his schools have helped working class children. But I’d rather have schools run by a government that solved the funding gap and accountable to students, parents, teaching unions and communities – not just those who can afford to start a school.
Central to his defence is his apparent belief in ‘meritocracy’. What he means is that some working class children should have his ‘ideal’ form of education – defined as suits and compulsory Latin – based on private schools, while everyone else deals with privatised schools. I met him for the second time during his speech at Oxford University, where he slammed the prospect of any action to address race and class gaps at Oxford, after gleefully admitting to being let in by mistake, assisted by lobbying from well-connected friends.
As one of 0.8% of students in my year at Oxford formerly on free school meals, I might have been flattered by Young’s belief that I was among the worthy few. Except he also believes working class Oxbridge students are “universally unattractive” and “deformed”.
3. Toby Young is not just a controversialist.
Young defended his comments by reminding us he’s a provocateur. I have nothing against provocateurs. What is politics without passion and controversy? But the point of provocation is to make a tough point you believe needs making, to mock a deserving target, or to propose an idea that deserves an airing. I’m not sure which one of those “I had my dick up her arse”, written in reference to a photoshoot with a colleague, fits into. Either Young provokes for trolling purposes – of the quality you can find from any Pepe the Frog avatar – or he actually holds these views.
Blurring trolling and opinion is how every hardline ‘provocateur’ from Katie Hopkins to Milo Yiannopoulos seeks to make extreme views mainstream. Likewise the deft switch between outrage and offence: Young feels it is his God-given right to free speech to attack people routinely, and yet when he receives similar treatment it becomes spiteful bullying. Young argued he was just being punished for “sophomoric things” he had said. Except he didn’t blurt things out as a teenager, he did so around the time he ran a school.
4. Toby Young was, in a way, well-suited to his new job.
Young has endorsed and gained from a model of education that has become less accountable and moved further into the grip of a few businesses, the central state, and powerful individuals. From there he moved on to another state-funded ego trip in the form of the Office for Students.
The Office for Students is too large to function particularly effectively. No one in higher education – students or their unions, academics or management – asked for it. One of its main functions seems to be enforcing right-wing causes célèbres; for instance, Orwellian definitions of free speech that apparently compel students to hand over their spaces to white supremacists (at the same as Prevent clamps down on extreme speakers on campus).
Toby Young’s brew of pop psychology, Thatcherism on acid, and what Trump would call “locker-room banter” does not qualify him to play a role in the development of young people. That should have been raised long before his latest appointment. But joining a Tory establishment marked by disgraced ex-ministers, missed targets, dodgy deals and bigoted comments?
For just over a week, he fitted right in.