In a snub to his departmental staff in June, Michael Gove handed the administration of the Conservatives’ flagship “new schools” programme to a charity established only nine months previously. Gifting a public contract worth half a million pounds to an untested body would – by itself – raise eyebrows. But what has really quickened pulses in Whitehall is the transfer of cash without a tendering process to the New Schools Network run by Gove’s 25-year-old former political adviser Rachel Wolf.
The driving of coach and two horses through procurement procedures will not be news to followers of the The Other TaxPayers’ Alliance (OTPA) and Lisa Nandy MP, who have been pursuing the New Schools Network (NSN) doggedly for the past few months. Parliamentary questions from Nandy and a freedom of information request from OTPA show that:
- The government have refused to disclose full details of the business case submitted by NSN. Stonewalling by the Department for Education led to an intervention by the Information Commissioner, who ordered them to reply. The heavily redacted FOI response was finally received after a 70-day delay.
- The DfE have no idea who NSN’s other donors are – and crucially – whether those donors would stand to benefit financially from the introduction of free schools.
- Education ministers have dodged further questions around procurement, with the department claiming “no other tenders were sought from other organisations [because] NSN has been active in this area for some time”. It would appear that in this case “some time” means “since the charity was started less than a year ago”.
Despite being run by a former aide to the Education Secretary and its role driving the reform of schooling in Britain, the NSN is, as a private charity funded through a large taxpayer grant (and curiously publicity-shy donors), beyond the reach of freedom of information. Contrast this with the government’s recent rhetoric on transparency. Writing for ConservativeHome this month, Francis Maude boasted:
“The most startling difference between this administration and the last is the degree of honesty we have with the public … We have put government transparency at the heart of our approach … When it comes to transparency and openness, we want nothing less than radical culture change for the public sector.”
Perhaps Maude and Gove can reconcile this with the smoke and mirrors surrounding the New Schools Network?