William Ellis School and the class ceiling
Dan Bindman recalls the great and the good turned out by his alma mater
11 January, 2018 — By Dan Bindman
Former William Ellis School pupil Toby Young. Photo: Raj Curry
TOBY Young, who this week stepped down after just a few days from his job on the government’s new higher education watchdog, was just one of an unusually large number of pupils from my Camden secondary school who have gone on to prominence in the arts and media.
William Ellis School, a small boys-only comprehensive midway between Highgate and Kentish Town, is unremarkable apart from its choice location. It backs onto Hampstead Heath at Parliament Hill Fields, below the hill from which, legend has it, Guy Fawkes planned to watch the spectacle of Parliament in flames.
Founded in 1862, the school moved to its present site in 1937 and was a grammar until the late 1970s. A number of old boys went on to be famous, including spy thriller writer Len Deighton, the lead singer of The Stranglers, Hugh Cornwell and the actor Andrew Sachs.
When I arrived in autumn 1976, although still a grammar, it had been put on notice by the then Labour government that it would soon become a comprehensive. The winds of change were already blowing through the elitist corridors.
Toby Young was one outsider who joined us in the sixth form, the son of one of the first female BBC radio producers, Sasha Moorsom, and the Labour peer, sociologist and reformer Lord (Michael) Young of Dartington.
In those days Toby – subsequently a columnist for The Spectator and a media commentator – had a youthful thatch of blond hair. He sparked curiosity in us all when, on his first day, he arrived with the Guardian in his back pocket.
In 2011 he set up the West London Free School under new rules encouraging local parents to start schools in competition with local authorities. Press articles at the time cited Toby’s keenness to model the school on William Ellis’s teaching, which he credited with turning around his own previously poor educational attainment.
I studied A-level politics with Toby and I have to say excellence in teaching is not my recollection. To my mind the standard at William Ellis then was, at best, indifferent.
This memoir was in part prompted by a recent newspaper article by a former classmate, Alexander Gardiner, who, among other senior television posts, was head of current affairs at Granada TV. His late father was Sir George Gardiner, Conservative MP for Reigate.
In an article about the trials of having a famous dad, especially a Tory at a time when many young people were chafing at the Thatcher government, Alex complained of one “son of a prominent solicitor” who told him “my dad says your dad is a wanker”.
I have no memory of this, but if it was me (my dad is human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Bindman) I am truly sorry, Alex. I’m quite sure my father said no such thing, by the way.
Other classmates who, like Alex, achieved prominence in their fields include Harry Lansdown, whose mother is author Gillian Tindall. He became a commissioning editor at the BBC and was acting controller of BBC3.
Another was Miles Aldridge, whose father, Alan Aldridge, did illustrations for The Beatles. Miles is now a fashion photographer and was once married to a supermodel.
Probably my best known former classmate is Sean Langan, the journalist and documentary maker, who was kidnapped and held for 12 weeks by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2008. He was making a film for Channel 4.
Elsewhere in my year were Joe Swift and Sean Macaulay. Joe, the son of novelist Margaret Drabble and the actor Clive Swift, went on to become a regular on BBC2’s Gardeners’ World.
Journalist Sean, whose publicist sister Sarah married Gordon Brown, wrote the script for the comedy drama Eddie the Eagle, which was made into a movie, starring Hugh Jackman.
There was also Pan Yiannakou, who went on to manage a futures fund trading $1bn a day and who has since invented a revolutionary leather printing technology which promises to disrupt an $85bn-a-year industry.
In 1978 William Ellis opened up to a mixed-ability intake. Over the following years several of the grammar-era teachers left. From the earlier period it retained its house system, the school song, and officially we played rugby when we wanted to play football.
All the above high achievers could be overshadowed by Jason Drew, an “environmentalist capitalist” and serial entrepreneur.
His ambition is to solve the world’s dependence on fish protein for animal feed, which he calls the “protein crunch”.
Jason, whose maternal ancestor was the ‘P’ in accountancy giant KPMG (P for Peat), bought and sold shares throughout his time at William Ellis, encouraged by his father.
His current business, AgriProtein, makes feed from the larvae of billions of captive flies. Fattened up on waste slaughterhouse blood and leftover supermarket food, the larvae are processed into feed for chicken and fish farms.
Underlying the business model is the fact that one kilogram of fly eggs turns into 380kg of fly larvae in 72 hours. The cost of sea fishing for the equivalent amount of protein has made the economics of this venture viable.
Last year AgriProtein received a US$17.5 million investment, valuing the company at over US$100 million.
If Jason’s innovation is only partially successful in achieving its aims, his efforts could put the earth’s growing population on a sustainable footing.
There is not a journalist alive (and I am one myself) who could make such a grand claim. History will record that the story started in an unremarkable north London school.
• Dan Bindman is a legal journalist