Shine A Light

The BBC yet again presents a right wing think-tank’s work as objective research

It looks like a public body. It sounds like a public body. But Scotland's Commission on School Reform is the child of a privately-funded right wing think-tank. Why does the BBC play along?

Mel Kelly
5 March 2013

The BBC often reports on the official sounding “Commission on School Reform” in Scotland. Just yesterday, the BBC covered a “major new report” from the Commission that claimed Scotland’s previous school reforms had failed disadvantaged Scottish children.

What the BBC doesn't tell us is that the “Commission on School Reform” was not commissioned by the Scottish government or the public purse, that it enjoys no such legitimacy.

And it neglected to mention that members of this same “Commission” were among the architects of policies currently being implemented which are being criticised for severely restricting the education choices of Scottish Children.

If the Scottish Government did not set up this “education commission”, who did?

The Commission on School Reform was set up by privately funded think-tanks, Reform Scotland, which has strong links to the Tory Party in Scotland, and Centre For Scottish Public Policy.

Reform Scotland was set up in 2006 by Geoff Mawdsley, the former Chief Political Advisor to the Scottish Conservative Party leader.

One of Geoff’s advisors in Reform Scotland, Andrew Haldenby is the Director of a sister think tank, Reform, which he set up with now Tory MP Nick Herbert in 2001. Haldenby is a former head of the Political Section in the Conservative Research Department.

Reform Scotland’s research director, Alison Payne, started her career in Conservative MSPs Research Unit, going on to head the unit for 4 years.  Later she was a political advisor to the then leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Annabel Goldie.

The only MSP to publicly welcome the Commission on School Reform’s formation was Conservative Education spokesperson Liz Smith.

Among the Commission’s members are, as you'd expect, teachers; they include Heather Dunk, Principal of Kilmarnock College and Frank Lennon, Head of Dunblane High School. But then there's founder member, the banker Ben Thomson (not currently listed) who is chairman of Urbicus Ltd, a company that buys up property-backed loans from banks. Thomson is also chairman of the Board of Trustees at National Galleries Scotland, and chairman of Reform Scotland and donated £43,000 to the cause last year. 

There’s Angus Tulloch, an investment manager specialising in Asian investments, not an education expert. And then there’s the self-styled “consultants”, David Cameron, Keir Bloomer and Peter Peacock.

Keir Bloomer is the “education consultant” who was dropped from Argyll & Bute Council’s primary school closure consultations a couple of years ago after Freedom of Information requests revealed some surprises. Bloomer was charging the Council £750 per day plus expenses for his services. Moreover, he had assured them in writing:

“Using me can help to give the impression that the proposals are the outcome of an objective process.”

Peter Peacock was the Labour Education Minister who invited Bloomer to join his 10-Strong “Curriculum Review Group” to investigate Scotland’s education system in 2002 – which resulted in the original draft for the “Curriculum For Excellence” which is being forced on Scottish schools right now.

Already this SNP flagship education policy, “Curriculum For Excellence” has come under attack – even by Keir Bloomer himself.

In OurKingdom recently I noted that BBC Radio 4 Today coverage of a Reform report promoting private prisons neglected to mention that private prisons companies helped fund the research. Nearly 70,000 people have read Oliver Huitson's startling article that revealed, among other things, how during passage of the Health and Social Care Act the BBC repeatedly presented Reform executives as disinterested experts, withholding from listeners and viewers their backers’ clear financial interests in private health provision. 

And now here we go again. What is going on? Why is a privately-funded think tank calling its offspring an “education commission” and issuing “calls for evidence” as if it were a public body acting for the public good? Is this the outsourcing of policymaking? Or is it lobbying on the sly? Are the real teachers on the Commission on School Reform unwittingly being exploited to give the impression of an objective process?

When the national broadcaster reports the utterances of such a body, should it not make crystal clear who is behind it? When private interests steal the language and clothing of public bodies whose work is the public good, journalism's duty is to expose and not facilitate the act of impersonation.

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