Meet Education UK’s Power Couple

Education’s very own House of Cards

Rachel Wolf was educated at a private school in Dulwich and left Cambridge University with a degree in Natural Sciences. Wolf held a research post for Boris Johnson working on his mayoral campaign. This swiftly lead Wolf to a post with Michael Gove writing education policy whilst he was still in the shadow cabinet. Wolf’s education insights at the tender age of 24 came from her trips to Sweden and the US where she visited free and charter schools.

In particular Wolf was inspired by the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools in the US that have been widely characterised by their policy of shunning, shaming and humiliating their students. Students in KIPP schools wear uniforms, walk silently in single file lines from class to class, and are disciplined for even the smallest infraction. KIPP is the kind of segregated, bare-knuckled corporate education reform for the poor that makes it the darling of oligarchs and hedge funders.

Jim Horn, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA, describes KIPP’s approach thus:

“(It is) intended to create a culturally-sterilized corps of black order takers and low level corporate drones who never complain and always ask How High? when the boss man says, Jump. If the KIPP neo-eugenic treatment can be perfected by Seligman (psychologist Martin Seligman) and David Levin (co-founder of KIPP), America may finally be on the road to ridding itself of the inferior and depraved cultures that are responsible for poverty and its effects, and we may herald a new day when the unfit accept their own responsibility for their unfitness and, then, work double time to make up for their own shortcomings that keep them from entering the gritty corporate bubble where down always looks up, where everyone keeps on the sunny side of an increasingly shady Wall Street.”

Wolf’s description, on the other hand, went:

“there’s a KIPP school where all the children are convinced, completely convinced, that they are going to college, it’s amazing. Schools like this have redefined the educational landscape.”

But we should let a former KIPP student have the last word when she says:

“At KIPP, I would wake up sick, every single day. Except Sunday, ’cause that day I didn’t have to go to school”.

KIPP and the institutions that seek to emulate are the perfect synthesis of school and prison, a return to the Victorian workhouses where the less affluent are taught their place in life. Indeed students enrolled at KIPP called it “Kids in Prison Program”.

Yet, KIPP is the most celebrated charter chain in the US. It has received hundreds of millions of dollars in gifts and grants from foundations, individuals, and government. Some, like the Gates Foundation, have aligned or vested interests with business. They have a belief in education as process, school as production line, human capital as output.

Wolf returned to the UK with a messianic vision of how schools could be reformed in England. Not by the woolly ideas of “the Blob”, not by using today’s modern affordances to enrich the learning and teaching experience but by embedding a rigidly structured, industrialised processing of children to prepare them for the workforce. This must certainly have been at odds with the schooling experience Wolf had enjoyed at Alleyn’s School in South London. Perhaps KIPP is what Alleyn’s would look like if contracted out to Group 4 Security or another service provider in the state sector. It’s not hard to imagine how such a vision had given Gove a sense of potency.

Seeking to monetise her vision Wolf founded the New Schools Network at the age of 24 to encourage groups and “for-profit companies to set up hundreds of new independent state schools”. At launch Wolf declined to name her financial backers saying that they were “a relatively small number of individuals who have a long-standing interest in supporting education projects, particularly the academy programme.” Wolf did however say that she “would never take money from any political party”.

In 2010, with the Conservatives in power and Gove as Education Secretary the conditions were ripe for Wolf, supported by a £500,000 grant from the government, to build her network. This grant raised eyebrows, occurring during the “bonfire of the quango’s” when govt was pledging an end to these unelected beneficiaries of public money. The grant was awarded without being advertised and without inviting any other organisations to tender.

New Schools Network was essentially an advisory service for organisations wanting to start a school under the governments flagship Free School programme.

Around this time other events were set in motion that are now having profound impact on education policy for England. Government lobbyists, Portland whose clients include Google, Apple and Vodafone, were lobbying on behalf of the technology industry to digitise education. For example, players like Charles Dunstone, founder of Carphone Warehouse and neighbour of David Cameron, saw an opportunity to supply tablet computers to schools. Dunstone is also chairman of Talk Talk, the recently hacked broadband provider and one the industry sponsors of Policy Exchange. By 2012, Gove was hailing the unprecedented opportunities technology provided for testing pupils. Matthew Hancock, Enterprise and Skills Minister at the time, even announced the end of teaching where the imparting of knowledge would be left to computers.

At this point I should direct you to, “A Quiet Word”, an insightful account by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell about the corporate takeover of democracy where influence is constructed by the professional persuaders of the lobbying industry.

James Frayne, Wolf’s husband, was Portland’s head of campaigns three years up to the 2010 General Election and in 2011 Gove picked him as his director of communications to manage the public persuasion that would drive through his reforms. In addition to being referred to as Gove’s “attack dog”, Frayne is described as an “’Expert’ in public persuasion” in his entry on Powerbase. The entry highlights his interest in applying neuroscience and psychology in campaigning so that, ‘People make political decisions based primarily on emotion rather than reason,’.

By November 2014, after a period as campaign director for the Taxpayers Alliance — a right wing anti-tax lobby, Frayne joined Policy Exchange as their director of policy and strategy. Policy Exchange is a think tank, or more accurately a public persuasion agency, inspired by Michael Portillo and established by the Conservative MPs who backed his campaign in the leadership contest in 2001. Formed in 2002, Gove, working for Rupert Murdoch at the time and an ardent admirer of Portillo, was made the inaugural chairman.

In a sense the origin of Policy Exchange then is analogous to what Momentum might be to the Labour Party today, creating a think tank or campaigning body that can help it win again. In the case of Policy Exchange it appears to have been a success but who knows what deals have been struck along the way?

Policy Exchange does not disclose its financial donors but its 15 current trustees are a mixture of right-wing journalists and wealthy businessmen many of whom have donated considerable sums to the Conservative Party. This arrangement also allows foreign donors, ineligible to donate to the Conservative Party, to finance Policy Exchange and have influence on government policy.

The Policy Exchange entry on Powerbase is illuminating.

Essentially, influenced by a small group of industrialists who have vested interests in free-market economics, it exists to guide government policy. In practice there appears to be a revolving door between Policy Exchange and the government.

Today Frayne, still at Policy Exchange, has called for education secretary Nicky Morgan to open “a few dozen” highly-academic, super-selective schools. This, only weeks after the government opened a grammar school in Kent raising the selective education ghost of the past. One wonders who might guide such a venture until one considers that Portland’s Chief Policy Adviser, former Policy Exchange wonk and Cameron’s Policy Director for 4 years, James O’Shaughnessy is in the frame. Recently rewarded with a peerage, O’Shaughnessy’s career highlights include a stint consulting for Pearson and developing plans to productise Wellington College for less affluent punters or, better still, the tax payer.

Wolf, Frayne’s wife, took leave of the New Schools Network in 2012 after presumably divesting the £500,000 received a year earlier to join Amplify, a New York EdTech subsidiary of Gove’s previous employer News Corp owned by Rupert Murdoch. Amplify’s proposition was essentially a more ambitious version of Charles Dunstone’s “Tablets for Schools” initiative that lead to Gove’s Damascene conversion. Like Gove, Amplify thought the future of tech was to control and measure learning rather than set it free, i.e. to reinforce 19th century teaching practice and student testing. The result was that Amplify tanked after burning through hundreds of millions of News Corp dollars. The remnants have been acquired by some of the management team in an undisclosed arrangement.

Wolf didn’t hang around for the autopsy and she returned to London where she is now at No.10 Downing Street as an adviser to the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Wolf was hired into the No.10 job by Camilla Cavendish, former Sunday Times columnist and head of the Number 10 Policy Unit.

Further Reading


Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.