Toby Young trips up on troglodytes

Toby Young is a man who has always played the game of life at the lowest difficulty setting there is, but is quite convinced that it’s purely a matter of skill that won him all his high scores.

At my high school, between 14 and 16, timetabling was everything. No one was allowed to do more than two sciences or more than one language: everyone had to do English and Maths: I couldn’t do History and Latin, because the timetables clashed: I chose Chemistry and Biology and so couldn’t do Physics: out of several unpromising options I took Drama, which was offered as an O-Level, and if nothing else let me discover I had an extraordinary capacity for memorisation and taught me the basics of public speaking: but thanks to the rigorous timetabling, I had to do a CSE in the seventh slot on the timetable sheet. (My mum urged me to do secretarial studies or child care, both of which she felt would be USEFUL, and I ended up doing art, which probably wasn’t but I had much more fun.)

Only three years later, I discovered when trying to find out what my grade had been, that CSE grades didn’t matter to anyone except the student and their parents. Nobody could tell me: I don’t know if any record was kept outside the school.

My mum was deeply angry at the affront to her daughter’s intelligence that I had to do a CSE for part of the week. (This was how I came to understand that CSE was the “not bright enough” option.)

My school sent the kids doing unpromising subjects like Drama and Art to a school that had been condemned as unfit for use fifteen years earlier. For most of the school week I studied in the new school, but three or four afternoons a week I’d head down to the CSE school and do art and drama: art peacefully in large dim rooms with high ceilings, surrounded by kids who were mostly not in my other classes, and who, like me, had no particular talent for drawing but enjoyed making things.

The Hon. Toby Young‘s latest Spectator column is unsurprisingly-supportive of Michael Gove‘s vague plans to abolish GCSEs and go back to O-levels and CSEs. He describes the caveats of people who have actually studied how children learn sarcastically as:

They acknowledged that some children would benefit from doing O-levels rather than GCSEs. But such gains would be more than offset by the harm inflicted on those children forced to do CSEs. Telling a child of 14 that he or she isn’t bright enough to do O-levels would be an irreparable blow to their self-esteem. Much better to have a unitary system in which all children do the same exams, even if that means they have to be quite easy in order to be fully “inclusive”.

Toby Young says

There are so many reasons to embrace these proposal it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, it’s already possible for children to take the equivalent of O-levels. They’re called IGCSEs. Problem is, with a few exceptions, you can only do them at fee-paying schools. It’s one of the reasons private schools are so heavily over-represented at Russell Group universities. The difference between the two-tier system we have now and the one Gove is proposing to replace it with is that, in the new system, children from all walks of life will be able to take the more rigorous exams not just those with rich parents.

You don’t get to go to Eton unless you have rich parents, and statistically if you want to become Prime Minister someday, Eton is the most likely school to take you there. Correlation is not causation.

I passed my teens under an Old Etonian cabal, presided over by Harold Macmillan: 50-plus years later, I live again under an Old Etonian clique. Before he was elected, I asked at a local hustings my now MP, Old Etonian Zac Goldsmith, how it came about that, in Tory leadership terms, we were back in the 1950s. All the Old Etonians likely to be in a Conservative government were, he assured me, absolutely the best people among our 60 million fellow citizens to occupy those commanding heights. (Robert Chesshyre: In 1987 I returned to a country beset by class and inequality. And it still is)

Toby Young proudly brags that he failed his O-Levels and did a stint of workfare and still got into Oxford and became the man he is today, and therefore anyone else could do the same if they worked as hard as he did: he always forgets to mention that his father was Baron Young of Dartington.

He argues:

But the thing that really annoys me is this idea that children who end up doing CSEs will never recover from the humiliation. Are British schoolchildren really so fragile that the “stigma” of not doing O-levels will cause permanent damage? The sages assembled round the table on Newsnight were all nodding their heads in agreement on this point – it was so obvious it didn’t require any evidence to back it up.

What the son of Baron Young of Dartington never noticed (or never cared) is that if you leave school with only CSEs, with grades that don’t matter to anyone but yourself and your parents, there are jobs and opportunities that will be permanently closed. But his parents could afford to send him to a kibbutz in Israel for a working holiday and a bit of re-education, and enables him now to sneer at school children today who get eight A*s in their GCSEs as clearly far inferior to him back in the day – had he not had that expensive re-education stint in a kibbutz, Toby Young sneers, “I would have continued coasting along, gone straight into the Sixth Form and ended up at Oxford Poly.”

So far, so run of the mill. Toby Young defends Michael Gove and thinks a Tory policy is just perfect: what else would he say?

Well, there is this one paragraph. To Toby Young, it evidently sounded terribly witty. He was getting very cross on Twitter defending it and accusing “lefties” of being humourless.

Inclusive. It’s one of those ghastly, politically correct words that have survived the demise of New Labour. Schools have got to be “inclusive” these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from Dyslexia to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels the government will have to repeal the Equality Act because any exam that isn’t “accessible” to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be “elitist” and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law.

It’s quite a tirade, isn’t it? The kind of “wit” that reveals a great deal about what a man like Toby Young thinks is funny.

The idea that being inclusive is “ghastly”. Proper schools exclude. They don’t teach everyone. They’re not “politically correct”: their libraries do not include Alice Walker, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple; I am pretty sure Toby Young is thinking with horrid glee of Huckleberry Finn, certainly one of the great American novels, but one with the capacity to be deeply hurtful. (It’s interesting, while we’re in the field of “Politically correct”, why Enid Blyton agreed to change the gollywogs in her stories into teddy-bears: she said the last thing she wanted was for her stories ever to cause a child pain. Toby Young in the same situation would presumably argue that the pain would just toughen them up.)

Alice Walker Toby Young

That means wheelchair ramps

Ghastly, yes. Imagine if kids who can’t walk could go to school just like anyone else. How would Toby Young feel then?

Update, 2nd July: Toby Young announced he plans to open two more free schools in London, and for his secondary school, he’s having Palingswick House (“a Victorian building that had been earmarked for demolition by Hammersmith and Fulham Council“) refurbished and an extension added, by architecture firm TP Bennett. Plans should be submitted to the council at the end of this month. Toby Young bragged his school will be less expensive than schools built by Labour: “It’s not a question of whether we need a new secondary school but how we can set one up in the most inexpensive way.” Chris Wieszczycki, a TP Bennet partner said: “The budget is tight and a fraction of what is normally spent. It’s light touch refurbishment and the extension at the back.”

Wheelchair ramps, while deplored by Toby Young, are in fact required by law.

a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from Dyslexia to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy

Ghastly, yes. Imagine if children with dyslexia, instead of being given picture books to look at and told they were stupid, were actually helped to learn to their full capacity? What a waste that would be, in Toby Young’s view of things. Imagine if a child whose carer was inducing symptoms of illnesses in the child, was actually being helped at school, and not just abandoned to fail. What a terrible waste of educational resources that would be, helping children whose parents had a mental illness to be able to do well at school.

the government will have to repeal the Equality Act

Ah yes; the Tory bugbear, the Equality Act 2010.

The Equality Act 2010 provides a single, consolidated source of discrimination law, covering all the types of discrimination that are unlawful. It simplifies the law by removing anomalies and inconsistencies that had developed over time in the existing legislation, and it extends the protection from discrimination in certain areas.

As far as schools are concerned, for the most part, the effect of the new law is the same as it has been in the past – meaning that schools cannot unlawfully discriminate against pupils because of their sex, race, disability, religion or belief and sexual orientation. Protection is now extended to pupils who are pregnant or undergoing gender reassignment. However, schools that are already complying with the law should not find major differences in what they need to do.

So if you’re not one of Toby Young’s sort – not an able-bodied straight white man – then as far as Young is concerned, you are a “functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six”. Young likes the idea that schools should be able to discriminate against and exclude pupils because they’re girls, or not white, or disabled (those ghastly kids in their wheelchairs, or those kids with mentally ill parents, they don’t belong in proper education), they’re not the right religion, or they’re gay or trans.

Yes, he really said all of that.

And when he realised people were taking offence, the Hon. Young seemed to think people would understand it better if only they could read the whole thing. And when this didn’t help he added a petulant paragraph explaining he’d been Terribly Misunderstood by Some People:

I’m using “inclusive” in the broad sense to mean a dumbed down, one-size-fits-all curriculum, rather than the narrow sense of providing equal access to mainstream education for people with disabilities.

It’s interesting that Toby Young should claim that’s what he meant, since that’s quite definitely not what he said.

But it’s also interesting that Young is vaguely aware that “inclusive” has two meanings; the meaning that the Tories have assigned to it, for any educational system that doesn’t privilege able-bodied white boys of good family, which is then said to be “dumbed-down”, is the meaning Young thinks is “the broad sense” of inclusive.

It’s not any sense of “inclusive” at all.

I’ve absolutely nothing against inclusion in that sense. Rather, what I’m against is the way in which opponents of education reform often invoke the low intelligence of some (non-SEN) children as a reason not to introduce more intellectual rigour into a national curriculum that’s meant to be fully inclusive.

Actually, it’s mostly white men like Toby Young who argue that children who aren’t white, who aren’t from families like his, are of “low intelligence”. (For a whole plethora of examples of how white men have solemnly concluded that white men are more intelligent, see Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man.)

Toby Young wants us to know that he has simply concluded – nothing to do with disability discrimination, no indeed! – that there are some childen who are not worthy of being properly educated:

That’s the context in which I use the word “troglodyte”. It’s supposed to conjure up the fictional, cave-dwelling creatures from the movie 2000 Years BC – someone whom it’s plainly ridiculous to try and tailor the national curriculum for.

Because, if you’re Toby Young, it’s “ridiculous” to suppose that a nation could try to provide a decent education to all children. Some children, apparently, are just worthless. It’s “plainly ridiculous” to try to educate a British child who in Toby Young’s opinion will never be more than a “cave-dwelling troglodyte”.

It’s not supposed to be a synonym for a child with SEN. Indeed, a moment’s reflection should make this clear. After all, I’m trying to point up the absurdity of Harman’s position and if I had intended “troglodyte” to mean “children with SEN” then Harman’s position would seem sympathetic rather than absurd.

Why, yes. Yes it does.

Matt Pearson wrote an excellent blog “Forever Young” pointing out the contradictions in Toby Young’s position.
Toby Young: Comforting the Comfortable

But I wonder if the answer isn’t simpler than that. Young was so sure he could never possibly have meant to exclude children with disabilities from the national curriculum. He only means to exclude children who are “troglodytes”. And he does not like the idea that children might not get to read Huckleberry Finn but would read books written by a woman who was

born in Eatonton, Georgia, the eighth and last child of Willie Lee and Minnie Lou Grant Walker, who were sharecroppers. When Alice Walker was eight years old, she lost sight of one eye when one of her older brothers shot her with a BB gun by accident. In high school, Alice Walker was valedictorian of her class, and that achievement, coupled with a “rehabilitation scholarship” made it possible for her to go to Spelman, a college for black women in Atlanta, Georgia. After spending two years at Spelman, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and during her junior year traveled to Africa as an exchange student. She received her bachelor of arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College in 1965.

Who are Young’s troglodytes?


Filed under Childhood, Disability, Education, Education, Poverty, Racism

22 responses to “Toby Young trips up on troglodytes

  1. HB

    Notwithstanding the woeful example of monied privilege we see here, I would like to add one extra point. I was educated in the two tier system and took my O levels in 1982. I was lucky to have it so easy. There were several classes below mine (we were streamed in those days), which were double-entered for almost every exam. This meant the poor souls sat an O level and a CSE for almost every subject. The teachers knew the CSE was meaningless unless the pupil attained a grade 1 (equivalent to a grade C at O level), so they hedged their bets and gave each pupil the chance to grasp the O level. These kids sat a terrifying diet of exams during that summer, and the workload meant that they were almost set up to fail. They were far from troglodytes. They represented the majority of the school population, marking as they did the midpoint of ability.To do this to our children was not only damning, but unfair, and it should not be allowed to happen again.

  2. Jane Goth

    As I said on Twitter, Toby Young can kiss my Dyslexic arse. I’ve got 10 O levels, 8 of them in hard core academic subjects that Gove would think suitably rigerous. And they do include English language. All this was possible because I got the SEN support I needed as a child.

  3. The Toad appears to be conveniently skirting around the issues of class/parental education and how this affects educational attainment. I was relatively lucky, in that my family wasn’t living in poverty, and that my parents always tried to support my education as best they could, but since they had both left school at 16, there were limits to what they could do. This was pretty obvious by the time I got to secondary school, because there were some kids who were getting extra help and tutoring at home, and others (like me) who weren’t. You can’t ask your parents to test you on your irregular French verbs when neither of them can tell you whether the words you’re reciting match the ones in your jotter, and when you’re more used to being asked to check *their* spelling and grammar, you can’t exactly ask your parents to proof-read your essays and give you suggestions for your analysis of Shakespeare. There’s nobody to guide you on the “right” books to be reading outside of the curriculum to extend your knowledge and give you the all-important cultural capital needed to act reasonably middle class. You don’t get any help in preparing for university interviews (or the experience of actually going to university) when nobody at home has the first clue what university is like, or what you need to talk about. At the one university interview I went to, I was told off for not having travelled more extensively in continental Europe – and this was at a Scottish redbrick in 1999 – I hadn’t even realised that I was supposed to have gone.

    If his Wikipedia entry is correct, these are the kind of things that Toby Young has never had to worry about. None of these things are absolute barrier, but they mean that in the race for grades, university places and jobs, some people have to start from further away than others. It doesn’t mean you’re thick, but in a purely academic sense, it means that you need to be taught more at school, because it’s the only place where you have access to certain types of knowledge.

    • I thought that the big unexamined privilege with which Toby Young recovered from failing all his O-levels and still going on to Oxford, is that he got the second chance. (And, one suspects, would have got a third and fourth and fifth chance, had be needed it.)

      I was looking for an article to cite for this blogpost that I’d read and then couldn’t find (can’t even remember just where I saw it) on how it’s been shown statistically that going to a private school is less strong an indicator that you’ll go on to a “good” university (or any university) than your social class. As you outline here.

      • Yeah, I had the same thought about second chances just after I wrote this earlier. Some of my cousins didn’t do particularly well in their exams, and they didn’t get a trip abroad and a chance to re-sit – they had to go out and get jobs.

        I haven’t heard the thing about class being the better indicator of who will go to university, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Other studies have shown that kids from state schools were more likely to do well at university because they’re more used to independent study, while a lot of private schools will give their pupils a huge amount of coaching in their weaker subjects to keep their grades high (this was confirmed by a former flatmate of mine, who taught in a private school where teachers spent most of their lunch breaks providing extra tutoring). Ironically, the private schools that Young wants to emulate are, these days at least, doing well not because they provide “rigour”, but because they provide so much extra support for a certain proportion of the kids.

  4. I’m not convinced that a return to O levels and CSEs would solve the inadequacies of the GCSE system, but what a lot of people do not realise is this:

    (1) GCSEs are already two-tier (three-tier in the case of Maths). If you do the lower of the two tiers, you can only get a D, E, or F – which sounds like a fail. At least with CSEs, you got grades 1, 2 or 3 (and a 1 was an equivalent to a C at O level).

    (2) In the case of language GCSEs, the exams actually are less rigorous than O levels. At O level, you had to translate from English to the target language, and from the target language to English. that’s a proper test of vocabulary. For GCSE, you only have to translate from the target language to English, and answer questions in the target language (not a proper test of vocabulary).

    I detest people like Gove and Young who have absolutely no idea what life is like on higher difficulty settings – but I do think that GCSEs need reforming, though not abolishing.

  5. Peter

    For the sake of argument can we all agree that …
    (i) Privilege exists.
    (ii) Education is the “magic bullet.”

    Q. Should we
    a) Try to educate everyone to a level where privilege is overcome.
    b) Try to educate a few people to a level where they can (individually) overcome privilege.

    IMO & therefore where I agree with Toby Young is that…
    b) is optimistic
    a) is counter-productive.

    a) fails our brightest children, whose education is not sufficient to overcome the barriers of privilege. Society suffers because then the privileged dominate and bright kids end up unhappy and unfulfilled and spread the (correct) idea that there is no social mobility.

    Of course to employ b) is to accept that some children will fail, even that numerically more children will fail and tragically that some of those will be among the most disadvantaged, but that it is none the less, fairer, more honest, realistic, better value, better suited to the realities of life and that in time it will lead to a better society.


    • a) Try to educate everyone to a level where privilege is overcome.

      Why do you think this is “counter-productive”?

      b) Try to educate a few people to a level where they can (individually) overcome privilege.

      Why do you think this is “optimistic”?

      Also, surely you have this the wrong way round?

      b fails our brightest children, whose education is not sufficient to overcome the barriers of privilege. Society suffers because then the privileged dominate and bright kids end up unhappy and unfulfilled and spread the (correct) idea that there is no social mobility.

      You had that as the result of option a. But deciding to give only a few children the best education is invariably going to mean that privilege dominates, bright kids from unprivileged families end up unhappy and unfulfilled, and social mobility is minimised.

      I’m not throwing things at you. I’m genuinely confused.

  6. Peter

    Optimism marked with a *

    In b) We assume that the privileged kids are going to get well educated by their families, and that we will select some under-privileged kids and give them as good an education. Since the privileged kids are not necessarily bright, our kids will out-perform* theirs and rise to positions of power* where they have an opportunity to change society* AND everyone sees that people can rise.
    a) is counter-productive because we cannot educate everyone to the same level as the privileged kids, so even the brightest kids find it hard to compete with the so-so kids with privilege.

    • Peter: Since the privileged kids are not necessarily bright, our kids will out-perform* theirs and rise to positions of power* where they have an opportunity to change society* AND everyone sees that people can rise.

      You appear to assume that selection for better education will be made on the basis of intelligence rather than privilege. Have to say, if that’s your assumption, it’s not borne out by any selection process ever in broad use. For example, the 11-plus system explicitly selected on the basis of male privilege – boys got to enter grammar schools even though they’;d got lower marks in their 11-plus exam than girls.

      Privilege is multi-valued. It’s not just about how wealthy or how upper/middle class your family is.

      is counter-productive because we cannot educate everyone to the same level as the privileged kids, so even the brightest kids find it hard to compete with the so-so kids with privilege.

      True. But that’s awfully pessimistic, which may be your point? Because of male privilege, men tend to get the better jobs in science (see Barbie and Elevator Guy) But that doesn’t make it “counter-productive” to educate all children in science, girls as well as boys.

      It’s possible I’m still misunderstanding you, though.

  7. Peter

    No I think we are communicating well.

    But I don’t think its pessimistic at all! Its simply a fact that half of any group have to be below average.

    Since (i) privileged kids will be educated above average we owe it to bright kids (of whatever sex/class) and in the long run to ourselves, to ensure that they are counted among those in the above average education half.

    Your first point about my selection assumption is a clincher though, but here you are being pessimistic, and I am being optimistic.

    But at least there is a chance with b) – with a) you are running into cold hard logic (and (i))

    • Your first point about my selection assumption is a clincher though, but here you are being pessimistic, and I am being optimistic.

      I’d say I’m being realistic (but then a pessimist would). I’m not aware of any systematic discrimination in quality of education ever managing to be systematically directed at more-intelligent but less-privileged students even when that was what it was intended to do.

      Its simply a fact that half of any group have to be below average.

      That is an arithmetical truth. It does not mean that we have to provide the half of the group that are below average with inferior education.

  8. Peter

    ? Really ?

    Please don’t accuse me of semantics, for this is the crux of my argument – we (you) have to accept that there will be an inferior group (in an unequal system).

    Expensive attempts to deny this ie (a) mean that only the privileged few (who do accept it) reap the rewards.

    • we (you) have to accept that there will be an inferior group (in an unequal system).


      You are arguing that we should just accept that only the privileged should reap the rewards of good education. Why should we accept that?

      We’ve seen as a practical matter of fact, over the past sixty years in the UK, that where education (and access to education) is improved for all, that means the intelligent/able people from disprivileged groups have a far better chance of getting on.

      We’ve seen as a practical matter of fact all over the world and in the UK that where education (and access to education) is limited to only those “worthy” of it, that invariably means that better education is for the privileged, worse education for the less privileged, regardless of the levels of actual ability.

      Why would you feel we should just “accept” that intelligent, able people from unprivileged groups won’t be allowed access to good education?

      • Peter

        Answers para by para.

        No not at all.

        We have? I thought we were appalled at the domination of Eton etc?

        We have?

        I have read your last question many times, but I’m afraid I don’t understand it. I think my answer is “do you mean good or superior?”

        • No, not at all

          You argued: we (you) have to accept that there will be an inferior group (in an unequal system)” So, well, it may not have been what you meant, but it’s actually want you said. Why should we accept that?

          We have?

          Yes, we have. Do consider that Scottish students were going to university from social classes greatly inferior than were expected to go in England: because Scotland had much more of a tradition of educating to ability rather than to class privilege.

          Etonian dominance still exists and is appalling (though you, not I, are arguing that it should just be “accepted”) but we’ve seen that a refusal to just “accept” that better education goes to privileged students means more people get to go to uni with less privilege.

          Eighty years ago, my grandmother worked and saved to pay the fees so that her son could go to a private school that educated towards Oxford and Cambridge because she was determined he was going to have the chance of going there. To “just accept” that smart though he was, he was the son of a pub owner and was therefore going to get a below-average education, would have been the norm in her day: just not acceptable to her.

          I have read your last question many times, but I’m afraid I don’t understand it.

          Not sure I can help. You appear to be arguing that we just have to “accept” that there will always be inferior levels of education, and there’s no point trying to ensure that the intelligent but unprivileged students get access to the better because that will just be counterproductive. Which my family tradition, as well as my politics, rejects.

  9. Peter

    Have I got this right? Your family tradition and politics commit you to the opposite of what you think I am saying and that …

    There is EVERY point in trying to ensure that the intelligent but unprivileged students get access to the better.

    In which case we are in complete agreement.

    • There is EVERY point in trying to ensure that the intelligent but unprivileged students get access to the better.

      But what you’re actually arguing (apparently) is that we should just accept that education will be stratified into inferior, better, best: and it is inevitable then that the unprivileged students will end up with the inferior education. It does not greatly matter how intelligent they are, any more than it greatly matters how unintelligent the privileged are. If you argue for stratified education, you know that means that intelligent people will end up with an inferior education.

      It costs a lot more to raise the quality of education for all: but what was ever accomplished without being prepared to invest in it?

  10. Super debunk. And much more exhaustive than mine! What concerns me is that people like TY are actively shaping the discourse of education.

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