Lords lobbying minister to scrap Oak paid by ed tech firms

Parliamentarians are among those warning £42m quango is a waste of 'vital public funding'

Parliamentarians are among those warning £42m quango is a waste of 'vital public funding'

24 Nov 2022, 22:00

More from this author

Classroom teachers asked to express interest in reviewing and creating Oak content

Politicians calling for the Oak National Academy to be scrapped are on the payroll of edtech or publishing firms, Schools Week can reveal.

A letter to Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, last week said the £42 million earmarked for the curriculum quango was a waste of “vital public funding on what looks set to become another unwanted and ill-fated government technology project”.

Four of the five members of the House of Lords who signed the letter have paid roles with potential rivals to Oak.

A picture of Will Bickford Smith
Bickford Smith

The letter, coordinated by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), said the Oak money should be handed to schools instead.

Will Bickford Smith, a former senior advisor at the Department for Education while Oak was being established, said it was “disappointing” to see peers oppose the investment for classroom teachers.

“It’s even more disappointing to learn that they are doing so whilst in the pockets of edtech companies and publishers, speaking up on behalf of private interests against a demonstrable public good.

 “Oak must ignore the vested interests and continue to serve teachers and their pupils across the country.”

Former culture minister works for textbook company

A picture of Oak critic Lord Vaizey

The register of interests for Lord Vaizey, a former culture minister, show he is a paid adviser at Perlego, an online textbook company billed as the ‘Spotify for textbooks’ and ScaleUp, an investment firm.

ScaleUp owns Kapow Primary, which sells “digital training content” in “non-core specialist subjects” to more than 3,000 schools.

Vaizey also asked a question in the Lords about the “impact” of Oak funding “on the education technology market” earlier this month.

He queried why ministers had decided to “nationalise the education technology and publishing sector” with a quango “nobody wants”.

Lord Knight, a former schools minister who also criticised Oak during the debate, is a non-executive director at ed-tech firm Century-Tech and director of Suklaa, an education consultancy whose clients include ed tech companies.

A picture of Oak critic and edtech fan Lord Knight

He told Schools Week “partially because they [the Lords] are involved in the industry – they understand the impact that this clumsy intervention would have… I think there’s a good case for a quango to drive up standards, but that’s not what this is.”

Both Vaizey and Knight declared their interests during the debate, as is required. Vaizey did not respond to a request for comment.

Peers linked to publishing firms criticise Oak

The BESA letter was also signed by two peers linked to publishing firms – Baroness Rebuck, former chair now non-executive director (NED) at Penguin Random House and Lord Strathcarron, chair and joint-owner of Unicorn Publishing House.

Strathcarron said his objection is “entirely political and not remotely financial”. Unicorn has no connection to academic publishing.

But he said “taken to its logical conclusion under secondary legislation this will give the secretary of state ultimate authority of what goes into children’s learning books, with obvious dangers in terms of what is taught in subjects like society and history”.

Rebuck did not respond to a request for comment.

Lords are not required to state how much they receive for outside roles. Knight said he was bound by confidentiality, but added “we are talking small businesses who would not be paying much to NEDs”.

The BESA letter stated “ed tech investors are already deserting the UK as a result of the market distortion caused by Oak”. BESA said this was based on conversations with a number of “prominent” investors.

Investors ‘forced to pull away’

One was Simon Phillips, who said he would be “forced to pull away” from “several new investments” because of Oak. Phillips is CEO at ScaleUp, the company which pays Vaizey as an adviser.

The government’s own business case for Oak concluded bodies representing commercial curriculum providers had “some evidence of an impact on the market, but not for the level of impact they are suggesting.”

The fifth signatory was Baroness Hooper, who is honorary president of BESA, which is currently considering suing the government over the quango.

A failed high court legal case could cost the claimant upwards of £1 million. BESA said this shows “how serious the sector considers” Oak’s impact on its “future viability”.

A government report yesterday found more than 1,000 active companies in the English edtech market with between 32,000 and 49,000 employees. The business generated between £3.7 billion to £4.0 billion in gross value added to the economy last year.

A Department for Education spokesperson said they “value the importance of a competitive commercial market and so it will always be teachers who choose” whether to use Oak.

Correction: A sentence was amended to make clear BESA is considering suing the government and has not launched any official legal action yet.

More from this theme


Robert Halfon resigns as skills minister

Former education committee chair will also stand down as an MP at the election

Billy Camden

Ark stands by chair Sir Paul Marshall over social media activity

The Conservative donor has been accused of liking and sharing extremist posts

Freddie Whittaker

Phillipson invokes zeal of Gove reforms in Labour schools vision

Former minister brought 'energy and drive and determination' that is required again, says shadow education secretary

Samantha Booth

Government ‘not governing’ as schools policies in limbo

Schools Week analysis finds at least 21 policies promised for this year have yet to materialise

Samantha Booth

Hinds: ‘I was wrong’ on teacher golden handcuffs

Schools minister also reveals changes to the early career framework and more details on non-grad teaching apprenticeship

Freddie Whittaker

Damian Hinds returns to DfE as schools minister

Appointment follows resignation of schools minister Nick Gibb

Freddie Whittaker

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *