Headteachers signed up by ministry to praise Gove’s free school policies
guardian.co.uk |by Jeevan Vasagar on July 11, 2012
Civil servants at the Department for Education were asked by Michael Gove’s advisers to enlist sympathetic headteachers who could act as defenders of controversial government policies, including the creation of free schools.
The PR operation involved creating a database of sympathisers who could advocate policy instead of ministers. Quotes from headteachers on the database were added to official announcements. It was shut down amid concern that it risked politicising the civil service.
The education secretary, who is due to announce the next wave of free schools imminently, has faced mounting criticism in recent weeks.
The Stakeholder and Advocacy team was established within the DfE last April as the government prepared for the opening of the first free schools.
One source with knowledge of the operation said: “It was just a pretty simple database: anyone supportive of free schools or academies or back-to-basics 1950s schooling was just dumped on the database, you could roll them out with an announcement – to back it. It was all driven by spads [special advisers].”
The new drive marked a shift from the traditional civil service method of using data to back government announcements, the source said. “DfE [in the past] would just put out loads of data; Tory spads were from a softer PR background and wanted to use case studies.”
The aim was to have headteachers advancing policy rather than ministers, the source said.
Headteachers on the list included Patricia Sowter, head of an academy school, who spoke before Gove at the Conservative party conference in 2010.
Press releases from the DfE in the past year have frequently included supportive quotes from headteachers. An announcement about the new school admissions code had a quote from Rob McDonough, headteacher at West Bridgford school in Nottingham, which read: “I very much welcome the direction of change. Through greater school autonomy, and the academies programme, which will positively impact upon standards, I do believe this will increase the supply of good school places for parents.”
McDonough told the Guardian: “In that particular instance, I had as a headteacher been invited to work on the working party looking at the new admissions code. The fact that as a practising headteacher I’d been offered the opportunity to look at all the new admissions proposals, I was very appreciative of that. If they’re putting my name to that on a press release, it’s justified.”
External endorsement has been an important source of support at a time when Gove faces intense criticism. The education secretary’s proposed reforms have been attacked by senior figures including Lord Adonis, the former schools minister, and the director of the Institute of Education, Chris Husbands.
Gove is due to announce which free schools are approved to open in September 2013 before parliament rises on 17 July.
While the Labour government also sought out supportive headteachers, Gove’s team wanted to put this PR operation on a formal footing, another source said. The operation was closed down amid concern about how the people on the database were selected, and that civil servants were being asked to do work that was the province of special advisers. The civil service is required to be politically impartial while special advisers assist ministers in areas where the work of the government and governing party overlap.
“If you were being uncharitable you could say it was using civil servants to wheel out Tory supporters,” a source said.
Civil servants would be encouraged to add names to the list by ministerial aides who said: “This guy’s good, we know him from Tory circles.”
In response to questions in parliament from the Labour MP Lisa Nandy, the government confirmed the team was intended to “improve relationships and build understanding of the department’s policies with key stakeholders”.
Nandy said: “I asked these questions because I was increasingly concerned about the politicisation of the civil service. It has been incredibly difficult to get answers to parliamentary questions and FOI requests out of the DfE, and particularly in relation to this group on why it was disbanded so suddenly.
“If you set that within the wider context of the last two years – public money awarded without a proper tendering process to an organisation run by a former [Gove] adviser, Tory donors brought on to the board of the Department for Education, an outside body linked to the Tory party directing civil servants, and private emails used to discuss official business – it seems there is a blurring of boundaries between the Conservative party and the civil service, which is a significant cause for concern, and deserves answers.”
The PR drive was established after the media strategist James Frayne was appointed Gove’s director of communications. Frayne, a former campaigns director at the Taxpayers’ Alliance, has written about the importance of “mobilising third parties”.
Frayne is leaving the DfE post at the end of August to work for the Republicans in this year’s US presidential elections.
A DfE spokesman said: “The Stakeholder and Advocacy Team was created in the spring of 2011 and existed for just over six months. In that time it helped stage events on the curriculum and on maths and science policy. It also generated lists of interested parties that were invited to events and kept informed about departmental policy. It was closed as part of a restructure which halved the size of the communications team.
“All civil servants operate under the civil service code. Any substantive allegations of breaches of the code would be investigated in the usual way.”
Filed under: In Case You Missed It - 14th July 2012, Other News Tagged: | department for education, dfe, Education Secretary, FOI, Freedom Of Information, Michael Gove, PR, Public Relations, The Stakeholder and Advocacy Team