New Schools Network: Gove releases business plan (minus the figures)
Case highlights contradictions – and hypocrisy – of government's assault on quangos and claims of transparency
The Department for Education has responded to our Freedom of Information requests about its relationship with the New Schools Network – 70 days late, and following two interventions from the Information Commissioner and a parliamentary question from Labour MP Lisa Nandy.
1) To see the business case presented to the DfE by NSN.
2) Whether tenders were sought from other organisations.
3) Whether the DfE assessed NSN's funders to ensure there was no conflict with the DfE's work (eg to establish that none of the funders had a commercial interest in free schools), and, if so, to supply a list of NSN's funders.
They responded (in reverse order):
To question 3, the DfE replied simply "the Department does not hold information on NSN's donors" (which we must presume means they did not investigate them either).
To question 2, the DfE confirmed no other tenders were sought: "NSN has been active in this area for some time and was effectively the only organisation capable of providing the level of support needed by the number of interested parties quickly enough to enable the first Free Schools to open by September 2011". (Note: NSN, which was founded by Gove's former advisor, Rachel Wolf, had been running for less than nine months when it was commissioned by the DfE.)
In response to question 1, the DfE has provided a copy of the business plan. The plan has been heavily redacted, with the department relying on sections 43 (commercial confidentiality) and 36 (allowing the "the free and frank exchange of views" within government) of the Freedom of Information Act to do this.
I haven't yet had a chance to study the plan in detail (and would welcome readers' views), but note that it makes its case by referring to 450 groups having contacted NSN between October 2009 and May 2010, and that "since that time there has been a significant surge in registrations to over 750 potential groups in just 3 weeks". (As we now know, NSN's definition of "potential groups" was rather liberal - it appears to have included anyone who requested information.)
The plan continues: "Clearly not every single one of those groups will, or should, set up a school. But the majority will need some support from the Network." Given that only 16 schools have been greenlighted, questions remain over what support was required by, or given to, the "majority".
Cabinet office minister Francis Maude yesterday justified the abolition of 192 quangos by saying it would "restore accountability and responsibility" to public life. But passing government work to private organisations and dubious charities like New Schools Network shows the contradiction at the heart of government claims of transparency.
It's one thing that we can't make Freedom of Information requests directly to these private recipients of taxpayers' money – making them much less accountable than quangos. But it's quite another that the government invokes commercial confidentiality clauses to suppress its own dealings with such organisations.
For an excellent alternative to the New Schools Network, check out the Local Schools Network, launched last month. What a strange political terrain we now inhabit: a state-funded network promoting independent schools, and an independent network promoting state schools.
- Information Commissioner tells Gove to respond to our FoI requests
- DfE not so keen on transparency after all
- Gove fails to respond to our Freedom of Information requests
- New Schools Network: questions for Michael Gove
Posted by Clifford Singer at 12:48pm on 15 October 2010