Toby Young, writer, broadcaster and author of How To Lose Friends and Alienate People has forged a career from writing, broadcasting and publishing books about a lifetime of being obnoxious. The first volume of his autobiography How To Lose Friends... and its sequel The Sound Of No Hands Clapping are catalogues of social inadequacy, the ceaseless baiting of colleagues and bosses, and a career sabotaged at every opportunity by sheer bloody-mindedness. Bad manners and worse judgement have done little to dampen Young’s success. Being socially inept and famously uncharismatic has seen Young through the halls of Oxford, Cambridge, Vanity Fair, most of the major British newspapers and Hollywood.

Everything I’ve read about Young has suggested that he will be graceless, difficult and wilfully argumentative. It’s a surprise, then, to discover that the Young household is the very picture of domestic bliss. The kitchen is spotless. Young’s three elder children are playing in the next room. The cat is sunning itself in the conservatory. Young’s impossibly beautiful wife Caroline is playing with their toddler while negotiating a time to take down the Christmas decorations. Young is busy finding a biscuit for his son. I’m only reassured that I’ve come to the right house when Young settles into his famous shed at the bottom of the garden, out of earshot of his wife and children, and starts swearing freely.

I’m here to talk to Young about, what? The time he hired a strippergram to come to the office on Take-Your-Daughter-to-Work-Day? His first day at Vanity Fair wearing a t-shirt emblazoned “Young, dumb and full of come”? Or his experience of being fired from The Times, Vanity Fair, The Independent, The Mail on Sunday, the Evening Standard and The Guardian? Today, Young is on best behaviour, talking about social mobility and his plans for the school he is trying to set up in Acton. The West London Free School will be a non-fee paying, academically rigorous school, which Young hopes will give Acton’s teenagers the opportunities and education which will allow them to compete with students from the best of private schools.

I put it to Young that after 20 years of self-promotion, chasing celebrities, and gate-crashing parties, the foundation of the free school is a little out of character.  Young is quick to quash any suggestion that it’s an entirely unselfish project. “It’s not that altruistic when I’ve got four children myself that I’ll probably want to educate at the school.” When pressed he admits “yes, I suppose it is a bit of a shift. I’ve always done a lot of different things. I’ve always regretted not doing something more entrepreneurial.”

What Young needs now – aside from money, a site, some teachers and a handful of pupils – is a Tory government. Under plans put forward by Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove, parent groups, like the steering committee behind the West London Free School, will be able to set up their own schools, in a move away from “the idea of the one-size-fits-all comprehensive.” “My life would be a bit easier,” Young muses, “if the Tories were to win the next general election.” As a potential spokesman with media credentials, “they’ll want me to be seen to succeed.”

Not everyone is wishing Young success. He’s been put through the wringer by fellow journalists and local MP Steve Pound, who have accused him of attempting to create a ‘Waitrose School’ – a middle class oasis for pushy parents unwilling to send their children to the local comp. He insists that in practice middle-class parents simply won’t be able to monopolize places. Young has been round the houses with the School Admissions Policy. He starts to explain the labyrinthine workings of catchment areas and free school meals quotas – “It’s a fucking complicated subject” – and concludes that “even if we did want the school to be middle class, there’s nowhere in Acton you can put it that would make it so.”

Young wants the school to be a “genuine comprehensive. We’re not trying to start a little simulacrum of an independent school. That’s fucking uncool.” In fact The West London Free School sounds like something even less cool than an independent school. It sounds suspiciously like an old-fashioned grammar: “You set rigorously from Year Seven, you maintain a low-tolerance for disruptive behaviour, you set the emphasis on academic attainment, and you push the children as hard as you can. And you embrace an old-fashioned model of pastoral care: houses, house competition. That fairly boring model seems to work. The ‘all-must-win-prizes ethos’ is rubbish. We’re not going to be wet about that, we’re only going to give prizes to those who actually come first at something.”

“Creating a high performing secondary school doesn’t involve reinventing the wheel. The template is already there.” He hopes it will be “the Eton of the State Sector”. Eton, or at any rate the private school system, preys on his mind. “The trend of the last 25 years has been away from social mobility.” Worrying about social mobility and education is in the blood. Young’s father, Lord Michael Young, wrote the satirical Rise of the Meritocracy and was one of the founders of the Open University.

Whatever claims may be made against Young’s manners, his motives are genuine. He is genuinely troubled by the very real problem that when it comes to university admissions and job interviews, candidates from the state sector are disadvantaged: “You’re not supposed to be marked down on how you eat an orange – it’s not the foreign office – but of course these things do count.”

Since we’re on the topic of job interviews I ask Young what advice he would give to undergraduates hoping to follow him into a career in the media. “I would advise them to think about doing it as a hobby. It’s not a good idea. It’s fucking bleak. I would advise them to go into teaching. It’s better paid than the fucking media.” Education is the future. Or at any rate it’s where the money is.

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