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Wed 3 March 2021

Gavin Williamson’s department is paying millions to a company founded by the chair of a Government social care review

A company run by a Government appointee was paid £4.3 million by the Department for Education (DfE), one month before his new role was announced.

In mid-January, the DfE announced that Josh MacAlister would be leading a review into children’s social care in England, which aims to “reshape how children interact with the care system, looking at the process from referral through to becoming looked after”.

The department said “it will address major challenges such as the increase in numbers of looked after children, the inconsistencies in children’s social care practice, outcomes across the country, and the failure of the system to provide enough stable homes for children”.

There were 78,000 children in care in England as of January 2020 – an increase of 20,000 from 2009. Those who spend time in care as children are almost twice as likely to die prematurely than those who do not.

MacAlister is the founder and CEO of Frontline, a charity which aims to “transform the life chances of vulnerable children by recruiting and developing outstanding people to be leaders in social work and broader society”.

It was awarded a £45 million contract from the DfE to train social workers in 2019, with the firm being paid millions in recent months by the department, Byline Times can reveal.

Indeed, DfE records show that Frontline received 10 payments from Gavin Williamson’s department in December 2020, amounting to £4.3 million, for the provision of “training and development”, “educational services”, and “other professional services”. This followed payments of £109,000 in November and £1.6 million in October.

MacAlister will permanently stand down from Frontline to lead the review. But there have been suggestions that he is not a fully independent appointment, due to his pre-existing commercial relationship with the Government.

Frontline launched in 2013 with a £1 million grant approved by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove. The organisation is currently chaired by Camilla Cavendish, former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit under former Prime Minister David Cameron, who is now a member of the House of Lords.

However, MacAlister has sought to counter suggestions that he will go easy on the Government.

“A few suggest that because I’ve secured Government funding for charitable programmes I won’t be independent,” he has said. “By this logic, those in local authorities, academia or elsewhere who secure public funding for projects would fail the independence test.

“If that’s the logic then fair enough but I ask that those who are sceptical to judge me by my actions. Helping to get children a decent and fair start on life has been the focus of my career and that’s what will drive this review.”

There have been additional concerns about MacAlister’s suitability for the role.

As reported by Byline Times last week, 23 academics and professionals have signed a letter to the Education Secretary, expressing frustration at the relative inexperience of MacAlister in the “incredibly complex” field of children’s social care. Prior to founding Frontline in 2013, MacAlister was a teacher for three-and-a-half years and then an associate fellow at the IPPR think tank.

“We write to ask you to take our concerns seriously – there is a real risk that without a significant change in approach, this once in a generation review will be a wasted opportunity, and any recommendations arising from it will lack authority, credibility and legitimacy,” the letter to Williamson concluded, signed by academics from multiple universities – including Dr Liz Davies, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at London Metropolitan University – and several independent social workers, both practicing and retired.

The DfE has defended its appointment of MacAlister, saying that he has been appointed “because of his understanding of the challenges facing the system and his experience of implementing innovative solutions”.

The Government, including the DfE, has repeatedly been accused of appointing insiders to senior positions in recent months.

Baroness Dido Harding, a Conservative peer and wife of a Conservative MP, was appointed to run the country’s COVID-19 testing and contact tracing programme; Kate Bingham, also the wife of a Conservative MP, was appointed to chair the Vaccine Taskforce; and James Wharton, a former MP and now a Conservative peer, has been appointed as the head of the Office for Students.

Meanwhile, as revealed by Byline Times in December, a business partner of Jacob Rees-Mogg – also the former vice-chair of the Conservative Party – has been appointed to a senior role at the Department for International Trade. He was joined by former Conservative MP and Vote Leave founding director Douglas Carswell.

MacAlister’s appointment certainly doesn’t reverse this trend.

Frontline did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.

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