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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

Censored business plan released

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.

We asked:

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.


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Posted by Other TPA at 11:48am on 15 October 2010
Tags: Education

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A particular point of interest for me is the NSN’s (redacted) communications budget, bearing in mind they had the money to employ an expensive PR firm...

Posted by Simon at 12:39pm on 15 October 2010

Simon, very interesting - I hadn’t realised they are on Portland’s roster

Posted by Clifford Singer at 12:54pm on 15 October 2010

‘In the future we wish to be independent of taxpayer funding. However, this will take time.’ (Only the 1st paragraph of the now disclosed New Schools Network business plan)

Isn’t this the State seeding a Private venture? Can existing Private concerns, especially in the Independent Education Sector, where they are also all ‘Charities’ for the tax advantages, have some too?

Free Taxpayer funding please?

Where the hell are the Taxpayers’ Alliance Super Hero Squad when the State is being so blatantly mugged up?

Should I put these questions into an FOI request for the D£E? I think I will. Well done to the Real Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Posted by Jed Keenan at 01:13pm on 15 October 2010

Put a request in for an internal review immediately.

They should at least be releasing the end figure for what money the gvt has given them in total if the tender exercise is now complete, even if specific payments for some items is still exempt if it is still ongoing.

They have to demonstrate what the public interest was in not releasing the redacted info. Am at a loss how s36 can apply tbh. With s43 they have to show what commercial detriment would be suffered if the figures were released.

Ask for the public interest test case with the fors and against and why they think the against outweighs the fors.

If they don’t reply within a reasonable time, say 4-6 weeks (as in theory they should already have this PIT paperwork done and signed off, especially if they’ve used s36 anywhere) go straight back to the ICO. Don’t let them string it out.

Posted by FOI Officer at 08:25pm on 15 October 2010

Completely agree with FOI Officer - an internal review is essential, as they should be made to show the public interest case for not releasing the redacted data.

Posted by Kevin Blowe at 11:05pm on 16 October 2010

This response with all its redactions is an insult and just shows the contempt they have for openess and democracy. It’s incredible.


Posted by Rob at 05:05pm on 19 October 2010

Have the conferences mentioned in their business plan actually happened?

Posted by accurate joe at 08:38pm on 21 October 2010

The contract let to ‘The New Schools Network’ is highly likely to be in breach of EU procurement directives. These are the rules which govern all public procurement and are there to prevent this sort of highly questionable and costly business practice. The directives are quite specific about the rules which must be followed to let contracts of this sort.
For this not to have been tendered requires use of the negotiated procedure and there are strict rules which apply to this procedure. If it is true that, for example the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust could have bid, I suggest they take action in line with the legislation.
Go to the OGC website which explains it all.

Posted by Bruce White at 09:08am on 29 October 2010

I have already sent in two FOI’s, and will be interested to see what response I get, and when. I should be due around the 24th Novemeber.

However, given Rachel Wolf’s evangelical zeal I have also requested any information on contact the NSN had with the Department before May 11th 2010, as if she really felt so strongly, she would surely have attempted to do something beforehand, as she had seven months before the election?

I recommend Peter Wilby’s article ‘Free Radical’ in the Guardian on March 16th which poses interesting questions.

Posted by David Hough at 08:44pm on 16 November 2010

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