New Schools Network will have to win two bids for public contracts to maintain its current role supporting the government’s education reforms, Tes has learned.
The news comes as speculation grows that the government might be about to cut back the financial support it gives to the charity.
NSN was formed to support groups looking to set up free schools, and receives money from the Department for Education to do so.
Since 2013 it has also run the Academy Ambassadors programme, which helps academy trusts to recruit business people to their boards. Over 480 business leaders have so far been placed on trust boards under the scheme.
A DfE spokeswomen told Tes that while these services have in the past been provided by NSN under one grant, the growth of Academy Ambassadors into a “distinct service of a sizeable value” led the department to tender the two services separately this year for the first time.
This means the NSN has to win two tender opportunities to stop its role from shrinking.
Speculation has been growing that the government might be about to trim its support for NSN. Last week, DfE minister Sam Gyimah said the department was looking at “options for support” for the charity. The announcement came in the aftermath of the government's botched attempt to appoint Toby Young, NSN's director, to the Office for Students.
One well-connected source told Tes they thought it unlikely that NSN would win both contracts.
“There’s a million and one organisations out there who could do Academy Ambassadors. It’s not a technically complex contract to run,” the source said.
The Academy Ambassadors contract, which is worth £1.6 million, is due to begin this April and run for two years, with the option to extend the grant for a third year. Invitations to bid closed on 19 January.
'The death knell of the free school project'?
According to the invitation to bid documents, if the NSN were to lose the contract, six members of staff could have to transfer to the new provider under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations.
The source added that the rationale for funding an organisation to support free schools applications had also waned over time, and that this could be the final time the government awards money to provide such a service.
They said: “Why does DfE simultaneously need to give out a grant for these schools to set up, and need to pay money to help people access the grant?
“It’s just not true to say there’s no support out there in the market, including that which could be given pro bono.”
However, there’s also evidence that free school supporters are beginning to mobilise in anticipation of a move against the NSN.
In The Telegraph last week, Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, wrote a column in defence of both the NSN and the free schools movement.
“In Parliament earlier this week, it transpired that ministers are thinking of dropping NSN – a charity that helped most free schools set up," he wrote.
“It acts as an icebreaker of reform, giving advice that the civil service would not (or could not).
“If it falls, it will sound the death knell of the free school project. And, perhaps, of the Tories’ hopes of re-election.”