On Tuesday, Sam Gyimah, the new universities’ minister, stood up in the House of Commons to face a barrage of hostile questions about the government’s failed attempt to appoint Toby Young to the Office for Students.
Most of the questions focused on the Department for Education’s handling of a process that resulted in the short-lived appointment of a man whose social media history included, among other things, crude remarks about women’s breasts.
But the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, Layla Moran, threw the minister a curveball.
She asked whether, in light of what she called the “blatant cronyism” surrounding the appointment, the government would also be assessing the money it had given to the New Schools Network, the free schools charity where Young is director.
The response may well have sent a shiver down the spines of those who work for the charity.
The government is currently re-tendering its contract for supporting free school applications – the grant that NSN relies on for most of its income.
So are we about to see the end of the charity that has always been at the heart of the free schools movement?
And will it be Toby Young – the colourful parent turned school founder, so long a figurehead for the Tories’ flagship education policy – who brings it down?
Close Tory links
The NSN has been tightly linked to the wider free schools movement ever since the policy was launched when Michael Gove was education secretary.
The charity was set up by Rachel Wolf in 2009, and when free schools officially became government policy in 2010, it received half a million pounds from the DfE to support those wishing to set up new schools.
Just as the NSN was present at the birth of the free schools movement, so were the persistent questions over its supposed independence.
Wolf worked as an adviser for Gove before she founded the charity, and the DfE failed to invite applications from other organisations for its initial grant to the NSN.
It’s not just Wolf: the path between the NSN and the senior echelons of the Conservative Party has become an extremely well-trodden one.
When Wolf stepped down as director in 2013, Natalie Evans took over. Evans moved on in 2015 when she was ennobled Baroness Evans of Bowes Park. She currently sits on the Tory benches, and in the Cabinet, as Leader of the House of Lords.
The next director was Nick Timothy, who advised Theresa May when she was home secretary, and returned to her side in 2016 as one of the prime minister’s joint chiefs of staff. Mike Crowhurst, a former director of education at the NSN, is now a Downing Street education adviser.
The apparent closeness between the Conservative Party and the NSN prompted a formal complaint to the Charity Commission in 2010 by Labour MP Lisa Nandy, who raised questions about its impartiality.
The watchdog concluded that it was operating within the rules, though it did provide the NSN with “advice on ensuring the charity's continued independence”.
Wolf, who now runs a public affairs firm and stood as a candidate for the Conservatives at the last election, insists that the NSN has “always been impartial”.
“It's always had people from a range of political backgrounds and none as trustees, as advisers, and as staff,” she told Tes.
She said that people who have attacked the NSN “have often been those who were against the free school programme”.
“Fundamentally that's a matter of government policy, not about whether a charity is doing a good job.”
Nevertheless, the DfE did appear to operate at a greater distance from the NSN following Nandy’s complaint. In November 2011, the grant for providing pre-application support to groups wanting to set up free schools was awarded to the NSN following a competitive bidding process for the first time (the NSN was one of two bidders).
Its funding was renewed in 2014 when it again came out top in a bidding process for a £3 million grant (on that occasion a total of three bids were made).
While the NSN relies on the government for most of its income, its position has always appeared relatively secure. The fact that questions are now being asked about its future follows a series of events triggered by the arrival of Toby Young at the charity in January 2017.
'Totally blew them away'
Young is a journalist who has built a career on being controversial and not a little hapless. The son of the Labour peer and Open University founder Michael Young, he set up the Modern Review with Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman before moving to New York to write for Vanity Fair.
The somewhat shambolic time he spent at the publication before getting the sack provided the material for the memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, later made into a film starring Simon Pegg.
However, Young did not really come to the attention of the education world until 2009 when he announced he wanted to set up a “comprehensive grammar”, just as the NSN was being formed.
The fruit of his labours, the West London Free School, was the first free school to sign a funding agreement with the DfE.
By championing a policy that was unpopular in left-leaning education circles, he quickly earned himself enemies. Characteristically outspoken comments, on his local comprehensive (“hamstrung by political correctness”) and teacher workload (“compared to a lot of other jobs, it’s not that tough”), did nothing to endear him to his critics.
Throughout his colourful journalistic career, Young has made repeated intimations about taking a more serious role in public life. If setting up the West London Free School was the first stepping stone in this direction, becoming director of the NSN was the next one.
Compared to his more straitlaced predecessors, Young's candidacy for the role was perhaps unexpected. But one source told Tes that when Young appeared in front of the interview panel he “totally blew them away”.
For a year, his stewardship was relatively incident free. In September, he wrote for Tes about how the NSN was going to start offering a paid-for service to free schools that have received approval (an indication perhaps that he was trying to ween the charity off its dependence on DfE money).
However, calamity struck at the beginning of this year when Young tried to leap to his next stepping stone. On New Year’s Eve, he was announced as a non-executive director on the DfE’s new university regulator, the Office for Students.
The backlash was as quick as it was predictable. Articles were quickly unearthed in which Young had mocked the inclusivity agenda and advocated “progressive eugenics”. So too were various unedifying comments he had made on social media. Nine days after his appointment was unveiled, Young resigned.
A source told Tes that the NSN’s staff were “a bit upset” by the drubbing Young had received, because he is “popular in the NSN team”. “The criticism they saw of Toby was not what they see day to day,” they said.
Turning up the heat
The first suggestion that the episode might have had a deeper impact and affected the NSN’s bid for its grant to be renewed only emerged this week.
It came with the publication of a report from the commissioner for public appointments criticising the process the DfE had followed to appoint Young to the OfS.
According to the report, Jo Johnson, who was then the universities minister, personally contacted him about applying for the post.
While one candidate to be a “student experience” representative on the OfS board was blocked after their social media activity was "extensively examined", the commissioner found that the DfE "did not delve back extensively" into Young's social media history. The report concluded that “due diligence was inadequate and not conducted in respect of all candidates on an equal basis, compromising the principle of fairness”.
With the process to appoint Young found wanting, the Liberal Democrats have now turned up the heat on the DfE and the NSN.
Layla Moran asked the government whether it was going to review its previous decisions to award money to the charity to check “whether or not due process was followed”. Lord Storey, the party’s education spokesman in the Lords, asked for assurances that the government’s current re-tendering of the free schools grant would be “properly managed and correct procedures will be followed in every detail”.
And so, by becoming the story, Young has inadvertently attracted a huge amount of extra scrutiny to the NSN. This may feel a little unfair to the self-confessed controversialist who had actually been steering the charity through a generally quiet, uncontentious, phase of its existence.
The Toby Young NSN has been nothing like the pugilistic version of the charity headed by Nick Timothy. That period, between 2015-16, saw the network fire off a series of releases that aggressively promoted the need for more free schools by pointing out weaknesses in the rest of the state school system.
The fact that retrospective outrage over comments tweeted by "@toadmeister" nearly a decade ago should surface just as the future of the NSN is being decided – is an unfortunate coincidence that Young the self-depreciating auto-biographer would no doubt delight in exploiting for comic effect. But might it prove much more serious for the charity and the wider free schools movement?
The DfE invited bids for “a support service to the free schools programme” in December, with the window for tenders closing in January.
Could the Toby Young controversy affect the government’s evaluation of the bids it has received? Could the NSN lose the next contract to support the free schools programme – worth between £2.8 and £3.4 million?
As far as the first question is concerned, the NSN says the “only consideration”, when awarding the contract should be “which bidder is best placed to support the delivery of new, high-performing free schools”.
And it does seem unlikely that the past life of the NSN’s director will be included within the scope of the DfE’s formal evaluation. However, the controversy could still affect it indirectly. The government can be sure that if the grant does go to the NSN there will be no shortage of opposition politicians questioning whether the process was fair.
So given the failings in the botched appointment of Young to the OfS and the accusations of cronyism, the DfE will have to show it has dotted every "i" and crossed every "t" in its award of the contract.
Tough times ahead
Could the NSN actually lose the contract? Assuming there are rival bids, it is a possibility. However, the NSN’s incumbency arguably gives it a formidable advantage over any potential competitors. The charity points out that is has worked with two-thirds of the 696 free schools that have been opened or approved so far. Other organisations may struggle to demonstrate that they have the experience or know-how to do the job.
The impact of losing its grant would undoubtedly be massive for the NSN itself. According to its 2016-17 accounts, the charity’s total income was just under £2.5 million, with over £2.1 million (roughly 85 per cent) of this coming from the government. According to the DfE’s bid documents, if another organisation won the contract they might have to take on up to 19 members of staff from the NSN under TUPE regulations – more than half its workforce.
As far as the wider free schools policy is concerned, some people might question how much had really changed if the NSN’s role just shifted lock-stock-and-barrel to a different body.
But if another organisation – with a prior existence outside free schools – won the grant, their service could well be qualitatively different to the NSN.
There is nothing in the tender documents about publicly advocating and agitating for the free schools policy. The contract will just require the encouragement and support for individual school bids.
So a successor to the NSN will be unlikely to ape the charity's pro-free school campaigning (or partisan cheerleading, depending on your point of view). Free schools are the NSN’s raison d’etre in a way they aren't for any other organisation.
This crucial difference could actually provide the NSN with a lifeline were it to lose its contract, sources close to the charity suggest. It could try to scratch out an existence purely as an advocacy body, perhaps even remodelling itself as a membership organisation for free schools.
Even if the NSN does win the contract, it could still face tough times ahead. Some people think the DfE “went cold” on the free schools policy during Justine Greening’s tenure as education secretary. The announcement about the next wave of free schools has been repeatedly delayed, and the DfE has said it wants to ruthlessly target them in areas that are “social mobility cold spots”. In a bid to save money, the department is also planning to open more free schools via local authority led competitions.
These changes mark a major departure from the original philosophy behind the movement, which believed in empowering innovators to launch schools wherever there was a local will to do so. It is not yet clear whether Damian Hinds taking over as education secretary will result in the department adopting a warmer stance to free school expansion.
It may just be that the more serious long-term threat to the NSN is not Toby Young’s Twitter feed, but the government’s appetite for free schools themselves.