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How Public Funds Are Being Used to Attack Teachers’ Unions

Right-wing lobby group the New Schools Network receives 83% of its funding from the public despite being an 'independent charity' – and now it is devoting its resources to attacking teachers' unions.

An “independent charity” which aims to push the acaedemisation agenda in Britain’s schools and receives 83% of its income from the government is joining attacks on teachers’ unions resisting government policy over opening schools in the coronavirus crisis, Tribune can reveal.

New Schools Network director Unity Howard wrote a major article for the Times earlier this month suggesting education unions were “scaremongering and attention seeking” over opening schools, and said their stance was “hugely counterproductive” and “morally reprehensible.”

Howard also told the Daily Mail that “the actions of the unions are completely unconscionable – now is the time for sensible grown-up debate,” in a quote used for an article critical of the union stance.

In both cases Unity Howard used her title as director of the largely state-funded New Schools Network along with her comments.

The New Schools Network (NSN) gets over £2 million per year from a Department for Education (DfE) grant. The Network – which was given grants of £8.6 million by the DfE over the past 5 years, the vast majority of its income – describes itself as an “independent charity.”

The New Schools Network was founded in 2009 and has largely relied on government funding. According to the current accounts, the Network is only a “going concern” because of the Department for Education grant. The Department pays the New Schools Network to help run the Academy Ambassadors programme – a scheme to help Academy Trusts find new members for their boards, and to assist launching new free schools.

Unity Howard’s attacks on the teachers’ unions became part of a concerted attempt led by the government to pressure teachers into dropping their resistance to the wider reopening of schools. They came as the campaign was floundering amid criticism of government policy by the British Medical Association and opposition from local councils.

While the New Schools Network are often approached for comment in the media, the fact they are almost entirely reliant on public funds is not widely known. Tribune approached the New Schools Network for comment, but they did not respond.

The New Schools Network has strong Tory links. On her appointment last September, Unity Howard admitted to education news website TES that “I am the first director of New Schools Network who hasn’t been a member of the Conservative Party.”

Previous New Schools Network directors included Luke Tryl, who was special advisor to Nicky Morgan when she was Education Secretary, Toby Young, who resigned in the midst of a scandal over his views on eugenics and comments about women, Theresa May’s adviser Nick Timothy and David Cameron’s education advisor Rachel Wolf.

While current director Unity Howard may not be a Conservative Party member she has been vocally supportive of government policy. Unity Howard described the 2019 Conservative conference announcements on education as “fantastic” and “life changing” on her organisation’s blog. She also used the New Schools Network website to call a column by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in the Times “fantastic.”

But these are far from the New Schools Network’s only Tory connections. David Ross, the Carphone Warehouse founder who has given the Conservatives over £800,000 in recent years, is the chair of  its board of trustees. Other trustees include Andrew Law, a hedge fund manager who has given over £3 million to the Tories party and regularly attends party donors’ dinners, and Julie Kirkbride, Tory MP from 1997-2010.

The boss of a government-funded charity launching pro-government political attacks the right-wing media. It wouldn’t be the first time this government has used taxpayer money to advance its partisan political agenda.