There is a network of individuals and organisations who receive hundreds of millions in public funding annually, are backed by some of the largest and most ethically suspect private firms in the world, have an explicit goal to fundamentally reshape public professions and actively work to position their people into influential government and policy roles. Yet this network is largely free of scrutiny, evaluation, or even recognition. So, who are they?
Let’s start with the present
In May 2023, the controversial children and families social work qualifying scheme Frontline was awarded their largest contract yet from the Department for Education: £61mn to train 500 social workers annually over the next three years. Although praised by children’s minister Claire Coutinho as ‘a key part’ of the government’s ongoing investment in the sector, even if successful at recruiting that number of social workers (a big if based on their recent track record), it would hardly put a dent in the 5,000+ children and family social workers leaving the profession each year.
This new contract was also awarded to Frontline despite widespread opposition from the social work profession, including the British Association of Social Workers, who highlighted that despite preferential funding, there is “little evidence for improved retention, systemic change or better outcomes for children and families” since Frontline were launched over a decade ago. It was also awarded just one month after Frontline’s network partner scheme in teaching, Teach First, had their own teacher qualifying contract extended for an additional two years, taking the total value of that contract to £169mn. This is despite Teach First’s own very mixed track record.
Teach First and Frontline were founded on the same basic model, pioneered in England by Teach First since 2002: recruitment based primarily on traditional academic credentials (the ‘best and brightest’), preferential funding and support for those who make the cut, a short summer residential school, and then predominantly on the job learning, all culminating in a postgraduate qualification. Other network partners following this same basic model include:
- Think Ahead, a mental health social work qualifying scheme, founded in 2014.
- Police Now, a police qualifying scheme, launched in 2015.
- Unlocked Graduates, a prison officer qualifying scheme, launched in 2016.
While each of these is explicitly based on the Teach First model, they were a relatively loosely networked group until the founding of Transform Alliance (later renamed Transform Society) in 2018, which incorporated Teach First, Frontline, Think Ahead, Police Now and Unlocked Graduates into a formal network, claiming to be “the UK’s largest and most powerful network of social change programmes”.
Seen within this context, recent contract extensions for Frontline and Teach First are not an anomaly, as each of these network partners continues to receive the vast majority of their funding from expanding government contracts (see also Unlocked Graduates, Police Now, Think Ahead). Moreover, they are increasingly being awarded contracts beyond their initial qualifying training scope, in particular in the training and professional development of those already in practice.
Teach First for example have been a delivery partner for the Department for Education early career framework (ECF) since it was launched in 2021. Despite rapidly growing evidence that the ECF has failed to achieve its goals for early career teachers, including one study finding that just 7% of teachers believe in its potential to have a positive impact, the ECF is now being ported to social work, based notably on a recommendation made by the founder of Frontline, Josh MacAlister (more on him below).
Frontline, through their already growing role in government funded social work training and development, are likely to be in prime position to win that contract too.
Behind every great scheme
So far none of this may seem particularly surprising. You may or may not agree with the ideology that ‘the best and brightest’ are the anointed saviours of our chronically underfunded professions, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would sincerely argue that England’s procurement process is not fundamentally broken in a way that favours large established providers regardless of their track records (for more on this, see this Demos Report).
However, the increasingly dominant role this network has over our public professions becomes all the more concerning when you pull back the curtain and look at who is behind these schemes. Teach First, Frontline, Think Ahead, Unlocked Graduates and Police Now have all received backing and support from prominent private sector partners. Some of the largest and most notable include:
- Boston Consulting Group
- Credit Suisse
- Goldman Sachs
- PA Consulting
- Northern Powergrid
Just Googling any of these firms alongside a word like ‘controversy’ or ‘scandal’ provides no end of reasons why we should be concerned about their growing involvement in our public professions. Focusing on the last four listed – BP, Shell, SSE and Northern Powergrid – these are all current partners with Teach First. Each of these firms have also experienced massive surges in profits related to energy costs during the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, a crisis that is disproportionately impacting on disadvantaged children. These are the same disadvantaged children Teach First is claiming be on a mission to help!
The question should then be what do these profit-driven firms feel they gain from their relationships with these schemes? This question becomes all the more pertinent when it is recognised that these schemes share an explicit goal to position their people into influential policy and government positions. For example:
- Unlocked Graduates promote themselves as a path to “securing a role in government”, and even held a recruitment session in 2021 specifically focused on how they help applicants get into government jobs.
- Police Now’s 2019 impact report outlined their ambition that, “one day, Police Now participants will land senior leadership roles within forces and government, as well as other sectors, to enhance opportunities for a positive impact”.
- Transform Society founder James Darley told potential candidates at a graduate recruitment event: “I’m very passionate about building this kind of cadre of leaders who will be taking over our public sector in the future.”
- Each of these schemes also provides ongoing support for those who have gone through them to help them to quickly rise the ranks. This includes Frontline’s fellowship network that by 2025 promises to encompass 20% of all children and family social workers, with an overt goal to support members “moving into more senior positions”.
The Teach First effect
There is growing evidence that these schemes have been successful in achieving these goals, with policy forums and government advisory groups that determine future directions of public policy increasingly dominated by those who have gone through, or have direct connections with, these schemes. Working with colleagues I have previously produced an interactive network map charting over a thousand connections stemming from this network. This can be viewed and engaged with here.
However, those involved in these networks change roles and affiliations so rapidly that the mapping, completed just two years ago, is already woefully out of date. It can therefore be helpful to explore a couple of illustrative examples of how this network works and influences.
Children’s services ‘reforms’
Teach First ambassador (their word for graduate) Josh MacAlister notoriously called in sick to his new job as a teacher to meet with Michael Gove and Andrew Adonis in order to plan Frontline over a decade ago. Since then, he has played a central role in children’s social care policy reforms, despite having no direct experience in this area. This includes being hand-picked by now-disgraced education secretary Gavin Williamson to run the government’s Review of Children’s Social Care.
Off the back of this, and despite over a decade of propping up successive Conservative government’s problematic children’s social care policies, MacAlister has now been selected as Labour MP candidate for Copeland, in a selection process that was mired in controversy.
Also noteworthy, McAlister’s husband is Matt Hood, another Teach First ambassador and the CEO of Oak National Academy, an online teacher resource provider. Hood recounts how he and others hatched the idea for Oak in a WhatsApp group in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with some help from network contacts, including Teach First, they were shortly thereafter given £4.3mn in funding from the Department for Education to produce online lessons.
Then there is a particularly poignant and recent example of Teach First ambassador Will Bickford Smith. After a short teaching career and roles with a number of conservative teaching groups, Bickford Smith professed “I decided I wanted to give something else a go”. Following a stint in management consulting, Bickford Smith became an adviser for the Department for Education in 2020. While there he played a central role in the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) market review, that as well as having near catastrophic impacts on the sector, also led to new contracts for Teach First.
After stepping down from his role in the Department for Education in October 2022, Bickford Smith then quickly became a trustee of Teach First. Bizarrely Bickford Smith has now returned to his same role in the Department for Education, stepping down as trustee of Teach First after just eight months, and just one month after they had their contract renewed by the Department for Education.
A network fit for a king
Of course these networks, and their influence and ideology, extends far beyond what could be captured in this short piece, and even the King of England has been caught lobbying for them in private meetings with government officials. As the numbers in these networks continue to rise by thousands every year, the dissent against them also grows, and they do take note.
After I raised concerns about Transform Society in an initial blog in 2022, their website quickly underwent a makeover, removing all mention from of the Teach First-esque schemes that up to then had been so central to their existence. Similarly, around the time their founder was appointed as chair of the MacAlister care review and scrutiny of the organisation intensified, Frontline removed their webpage that previously listed all their corporate partners.
A lack of transparency
These examples also speak to a broader issue with this network: the lack of transparency. There is no real evaluation, understanding or even recognition of the impact that this growing network is having on our public professions, services and policy. This means there is a lack of even basic accountability or scrutiny, and as our professions continue to experience historic challenges and pressures, the importance of asking questions about whether this opaque networked control is what we really want for the future of England becomes all the more prescient.
The first step in answering those questions is to simply acknowledge this network exists.