Warning: This post contains words I don’t usually employ in my writing.
It is part of my job to write about higher education. Other than being a governor I have no experience of working in schools and I have tended to lay off discussions about actual teaching in schools. By and large this is out of professional courtesy. On the other hand I have been vocal about the academisation of schools to a point where which a fellow parent on Facebook called me ‘boring’ or something to that effect. To me this is a justice issue-- others may regard an interest in school governance with about as much enthusiasm as I have about manhole covers, telegraph poles and Strictly Come Dancing.
One person who has never had professional courtesy qualms is journalist Toby Young. Until last week Toby Young was little more a controversial sideshow as far as I was concerned. I do follow him on Twitter and have been irritated from time to time and was not impressed when he was appointed to the Board of the new Office for Students. However, I regarded it as nothing more than the usual cronyism that I’ve come to expect, not just from the current administration but previous ones as well. However, some of things that Young has written over the years has come to my attention.
I am an academic, but also father of a mixed race child with autism. How can a man who thinks of my son in this way be the right person to run one school? Now he's got hold of the universities. #tobyyoung pic.twitter.com/wVUwOOhvym
— John Canning (@johngcanning) January 1, 2018
I seek to keep my children out of things, but this quote struck to heart my own situation.
I am a white man. My wife is black. Our children are therefore mixed-race and one is autistic. I don’t have the privileged background of Toby Young, but I’m having to come to the terms with the realisation that my children will (possibly already have) experience discrimination for the colour of their skin. As a naive 18 year-old growing up in (mostly-white) rural Gloucestershire I thought racism was mostly a thing of the past; now it seems more prevalent than ever, though perhaps it was all too easy to be complacent there.
Toby Young gave me my first break in television
An even harder thing to stomach is when bad attitudes come from ‘professionals’. As (former) CEO of the West London Free School Toby Young is one of those people I expect more of, not less. I don’t know what parents of children at West London Free School think or even know about Toby Young, but I hope that anyone at my children’s schools wouldn’t last five minutes after publishing the above. Young is what the previous would have called incontinent. He tweets about women’s cleavage, porn films he’s been watching and there’s even a joke (presumably) about masturbating over footage of starving children during a Comic Relief feature (He really did say that though he used an alternative word).
Another thing hard to stomach is the double standards.
In 2013 17-year old Paris Brown was forced to resign from her role as Kent Youth PCC over comments she’d made on Twitter in the past. Jack Manyard (he’s a youtube star apparently) was forced to leave ‘I’m a Celebrity 2017’ over sexist, racist and homophobic tweets he’s wrote between the ages of 16 and 19. I’m not excusing the behaviour of these younger people (I dread to think what I might have written had Twitter been around when I was 16), but they have not been given a second chance when their indiscretions came to light. Toby Young doesn’t have have the ‘excuse’ of youth. His comments were made in his 40s and 50s. Instead he is a champion of ‘free speech’ and ‘caustic wit’ (to quote Boris Johnson). Have we reached the point where the standards set by an entertainment show exceed those expected of those who run schools? MP’s including the HE Minister and the Prime Minister herself have rushed to Young’s defence pointing to his past achievements - I’ll leave aside the question of whether his achievements somehow outweigh his opinions though if Young can use that defence it must be available to Jack Manyard, Paris Brown and everyone else as well.
There are many sorry lessons from this ongoing debacle. The first is that privilege of birth does not evaporate over time. The second is that a right contacts to attain positions of influence over much better qualified and accomplished individuals. A third lesson is that the right friends can exempt a person from the need for good character. Fourthly, and probably most frightening this is a man who runs schools. He should be the right sort of a role model for young people.
A friend once sent me birthday which read, 'Blessed are those who expect nothing. They shall never be disappointed'. The final question: Why do we expect so little from our educational leaders?