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When I first met Toby Young, he was well down the road to establishing the West London Free School. He took me to Eton and I listened to him read a chapter of the book he was writing to a room full of boys. As soon as he had finished, the hands shot up. These Etonians had invited Toby so they could hear all about the world of journalism, his dabbling in New York media, the glamour, the celebrities, the fortune, the fun.


But no matter how hard they tried, Toby managed to somehow turn the question into one about education, and he spoke mainly about his school. The boys quickly realised that his passion lay not in journalism but in the free school movement, and without any prompting, turned their questioning to a realm they had not yet imagined.  


Some months later, I saw the film How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, based on Toby's account of his time in New York. I was shocked. Was this the Toby I had come to know? I only knew him as a kind, selfless, family man who had made massive sacrifices to set up a free school. The protagonist in the film was unrecognisable. Then I read about Toby's "previous life", full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n' roll. So I started to wonder: what made Toby metamorphose from a generally selfish being into someone who would make sacrifices for others?


The state's job is to provide services such as schools, hospitals and transport. But the problem with the state providing everything is that it rids ordinary people of a sense of personal and collective responsibility.


This is the marvel of the free school movement. While it is an initiative that comes from the state, it actually encourages people to help improve the lives of others instead of distancing them from their communities like so many other state initiatives do. So a journalist who once only cared about being invited to the hippest party was seduced into setting up a free school and is suddenly able to feel the "high" that can only come from doing good.

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