Digging around in the undergrowth of schools reform in England
Warwick Mansell's news and analysis site
by Warwick Mansell
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The most well-connected organisation working in schools policy, in terms of meetings with ministers, is Teach First, according to exclusive analysis of a public database by this website.
The charity, which has had very good links with both Conservative-led governments and their New Labour predecessors, has racked up 37 exclusive meetings with ministers since 2012, the database, providing information across government, shows.
This finding comes in the week that Teach First was revealed as the winner of a £113 million government contract to continue its work for another six and a half years, although closer analysis of the meetings database suggests its interactions with ministers have reduced in recent years.
Second on the list of access was the National Association of Head Teachers, on 31 meetings, with the New Schools Network – the free schools support and lobby group part-funded by the government – on 27.
My analysis of the meetings information, based on a publicly-accessible database provided by the organisation Transparency International, reveals, perhaps unsurprisingly, that teacher unions have featured relatively infrequently in discussions with ministers.
It also allows the creation of a list of the external advisers, revealed below, who have met most frequently government ministers – and one minister in particular – over the past nine years.
Transparency International UK has very helpfully put together an across-government database of officially-declared meetings, during which ministers interacted with external organisations and individuals, going back to 2012*.
Combining all this data into a single spreadsheet, it is possible to see which organisations met ministers the most.
Across government, the top of the list is dominated, perhaps unsurprisingly, by some of the UK’s largest companies and organisations. Critics of lobbying might focus on the firm at the top of the list, BAE Systems, on 216 meetings, although the next ones - the Local Government Association (184), Confederation of British Industry (147), BT (142) and Airbus (140) may be less controversial.
But readers of this website will be most interested to see, in the schools field, Teach First outstripping any of the teacher and headteacher unions, and indeed any academy chain, as having met ministers most frequently.
The database also reveals Nick Gibb, the schools minister, as in the top 10 of ministers across government in terms of the number of meetings each has had with outside organisations. Having served as an education minister for almost all of the period 2012-21, Gibb racked up 980 such interactions, the database shows. His get-togethers with trusted outsiders also dominate the list of those having the most frequent meetings with education ministers over the period.
Of Gibb’s meetings, Teach First ranked top in terms of access for any established organisation, on 14 meetings, with only the minister’s 15 emergency meetings with a specially-created exams taskforce, set up to deal with last year’s crisis, topping it.
Across all government departments and ministers, Teach First had 11 meetings with ministers in 2012; one in 2013; five in 2014; five in 2015; three in 2016; three in 2017; three in 2018; four in 2019; and two in 2020.
The database reveals how the charity, which was set up in 2002 and has links to the financial sector – it lists its “transformation partners” as the consultancies Accenture Deloitte, and pwc and banks Goldman Sachs and Citi – had frequent discussions with ministers during the coalition years, with a key David Cameron-era policy among the topics for debate.
In January, and then in March, 2012, the charity met Nick Hurd, then the minister for civil society – a post within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - to talk about “Big Society Policy” – the initiative advocated by Cameron as a way of re-invigorating non-government community projects.
The database also shows Teach First had, in addition, seven meetings during 2012 under the heading “general discussion” with Michael Gove, at the time the education secretary; Gibb; and Liz Truss, then minister for childcare and early years.
Other interesting meeting descriptions featuring the charity include one in June 2015 with Gibb, an “intro meeting and to discuss plans for expansion”; one in February 2016 with Lord (Jim) O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs executive who is now a crossbench peer, “to discuss education and the Northern Powerhouse”; three “introductory” meetings towards the end of 2017 between Russell Hobby, Teach First’s chief executive, and then-education secretary Justine Greening, Gibb and Lord Agnew, who at the time was the academies minister; and five meetings between Gibb and Teach First over the period 2018-20 on the subject of either “teacher recruitment” in general (four meetings) or “Teach First recruitment projections” (one meeting).
This latter pattern of interactions may raise eyebrows, in particular, given that university-based teacher education providers seem not to have had such frequent access. The largest provider, UCL Institute of Education, for example, does have meetings with Gibb listed, including one in June 2016 on “initial teacher training and curriculum meetings”, and another in April 2019 “to discuss languages, curriculum and teachers”. However, there were only six meetings between the IoE and the schools minister, in which the former was the sole external body represented, over the period, compared to the 14 for Teach First. Sheffield Hallam university, which DfE data suggests is the second-largest teacher training provider, does not feature in the meetings list at all.
As another comparison, teacher unions make relatively infrequent appearances in these meeting records. It is true that the NAHT appears 31 times. But the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) features only on only 15 occasions and the Association of School and College Leaders only 13. The National Education Union (only five meetings under this banner); the National Union of Teachers (16) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (10) (the NUT and ATL merged to become the NEU) between them took part in only 31 meetings**.
These seem relatively small numbers over such a long period, for organisations with hundreds of thousands of members between them. By contrast, the National Farmers’ Union features more than 300 times in this cross-government meetings list.
Which individuals were the most-consulted-with?
The above, I guess, will confirm in many readers’ minds a sense that organisations perceived to be less distant from the ideological preferences of right-of-centre ministers receive greater access.
However, a list of the individuals with the greatest number of meetings with education ministers is not topped by someone who would, I guess, feature highly on many people’s list of well-known Department for Education advisers.
In fact, the runaway winner in this category is Tim Oates, who since 2006 has been director of assessment research at Cambridge Assessment, the body that runs the OCR exam board.
Oates, a former head of research at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is probably still best known for leading an expert review of the National Curriculum for Gove during the first years of the coalition.
In the end he was the only one of four members of that review not to resign, with what seems a close relationship with the government continuing. The database shows that Oates, a cerebral figure who features regularly in the media, has continued to advise ministers behind the scenes, on a broad range of issues.
Oates’s name is listed in 14 meetings with Gibb over the period 2016-20, with topics ranging from maths textbooks to primary assessment; oracy and early language acquisition; and “Project Quantum”; to a 2019 discussion also featuring the Green MP Caroline Lucas, on “natural history and nature”.
Oates also featured in a meeting alongside another person outside the DfE who is close to Gibb – the phonics expert Ruth Miskin – and Ofsted’s Gill Jones in March 2018 to discuss the Early Years Foundation Profile; he met Gibb twice in October-November 2018 to discuss the government’s “complete curriculum programmes”; and featured in a meeting with the assessment specialists Rob Coe and Daisy Christodoulou, alongside Chris Wilkins – who may be a pro-Sats*** headteacher – on “primary assessment” in March 2017.
Otherwise, the list of names with the most frequent officially-documented access to ministers – and particularly to Gibb – features several figures perhaps more widely known to be close to him, or at least to the Department for Education.
Ian Bauckham, who almost certainly heads the list of outsiders who have been appointed by the DfE and DfE agencies to the highest number of formal advisory posts in recent years, is listed as having had six meetings with ministers.
The first was a get-together with Gibb in October 2015 to discuss modern foreign languages, at which Barry Smith, a languages teacher who went on to become one of England’s best-known traditionalist headteachers, and the prominent tweeter John Bald were also in attendance. Bauckham also met Gibb in May last year to discuss Oak National Academy, the on-screen learning platform which he chairs.
The Tenax Schools Trust, where Bauckham has been the chief executive, is listed as taking part in a further two meetings.
Other external figures on this frequent meetings list will not surprise readers. Tom Bennett, the government’s pupil behaviour adviser, features five times, including a meeting -badged against the name of his company, Tom Bennett Training, with others in July 2019 “to discuss teacher wellbeing”. Bennett also talked to Gibb, in October 2016 about initial teacher training; in May 2018 about “exclusions and behaviour policy” and for an “interview for [Bennett’s organisation] ResearchEd”; while a March 2017 get-together with Gibb was badged – as was one Gibb held with Oates on the same day – simply as “catch-up”.
Meanwhile, Miskin features four times, including that meeting in March 2018 with Oates and Jones to discuss the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile. She met Gibb in September 2019 and June 2020 – the latter with Teresa Cremin, a former president of the UK Literacy Association – to “discuss reading”, while in July 2019 a representative from her company, Ruth Miskin Training, met the-then academies minister Lord Agnew “to discuss the work of Ruth Miskin Training”.
Companies owned by Miskin, and by Bennett, were among the eight successful bidders for DfE training contracts as part of the government’s Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund in 2017.
Finally, the right-wing controversialist Toby Young also features four times on Gibb’s meetings list. Two of these occurred during Young’s time as director of the New Schools Network (NSN): they met in November 2016 to discuss the NSN itself, and then the following February to discuss “education policy”. Prior to October 2016, Young’s main position within education had been as the co-founder and figurehead of the West London Free School, yet a discussion with Gibb in September 2016, on “education reforms”, saw him listed as “Toby Young (Journalist).” Finally, Young had a discussion in January 2016 with Gibb on the subject of the “knowledge-based curriculum”.
There is more to be said about this extensive database; I hope to return to this subject next week.
*Each government department makes such declarations periodically. The last such Department for Education declaration was back in September last year – so there is now a gap of around eight months of meetings without any declarations – but there is still much data here.
**These figures are based on the number of times an organisation features as the only one meeting a minister. Unions sometimes feature in discussions involving several of them; these are not included in these statistics.
***Oates himself has been sympathetic to arguments about the side-effects of test-driven results pressures in schools; he has quoted my 2006 book, Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing, in the past.
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