New Schools Network boss resigned after PTE merger rebuffed

The board of the New Schools Network turned down a proposal by its interim boss to merge the charity with a “grassroots” group set up to lobby for education reform, it has emerged.

NSN interim director Mark Lehain proposed that the charity – which promotes and helps people set up free schools – merge with Parents and Teachers for Excellence, a campaign organisation set up by Vote Leave and Conservative party donor Jon Moynihan and Inspiration Trust director Dame Rachel de Souza.

But the move was rejected by the NSN’s board, which is chaired by Carphone Warehouse founder and academy trust boss David Ross.

It was announced this week that Lehain, who is also director of the PTE campaign group, is quitting as the NSN’s interim director, a role he has held since March. It is understood his decision to leave was prompted in-part by the rejection of the merger proposal.

A few chats were had, and in the end it was decided NSN & PTE could achieve more for kids staying as they were

He tweeted today that he “told the NSN Trustees I’d be up for running NSN long-term if I could bring PTE with me, as it were”, as he “could defo see pros & cons to this, but felt like a natural overlap & solution worth exploring”.

“A few chats were had, and in the end it was decided NSN & PTE could achieve more for kids staying as they were. Hence I’m going back to PTE full-time from 1st November & NSN will get themselves a shiny new director in the near future.”

A move to merge the two organisations could have been controversial given that the NSN, as an independent charity, has to follow impartiality rules. For instance, guidance states political activity or campaigning can only be carried out by a charity in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes.

PTE, which has pledged to mobilise parents and teachers to make the case for education reform, is a company and therefore doesn’t fall under such rules.

Schools Week has previously reported how many of the group’s members have political links, mostly to the Conservative party, but PTE has insisited it is “strictly non-partisan”.

The campaign has drawn parallels with what is known as “astroturfing” – the practice of masking sponsors of an organisation to push a public relations campaign as a grassroots movement.

The NSN has been in hot water before over political campaigning. It was warned by the Charity Commission in 2014 about the need for charities to be impartial after a Telegraph article entitled ‘Tories are fighting for the people Labour has abandoned’ was posted on its website.

A spokesperson for the NSN said the trustees would like to pass on their “deep gratitude to Mark for his work at NSN”.

“Effective from the first of November, Sigrun Olafsdottir will take on the day-to-day running of NSN as Chief Operating Officer. Unity Howard will also take up a new role as Head of Advisory Services. The Trustees will soon be launching the recruitment process for a permanent director.”

Lehain took over in March from Toby Young who stood down following the fall-out following his appointment on the Office for Students.

NSN was founded by Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to Gove, in 2009. Wolf also helped spearhead the formation of PTE, and sat on its advisory council.