Firm linked to Gove and Cummings hired to work with Ofqual on A-levels
A company run by long–term associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings has been working behind the scenes with the exams agency Ofqual on its disastrous strategy for determining A-level results, the Guardian can reveal.
Public First, a policy and research firm owned by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who both formerly worked for Gove, has been involved on the project with Ofqual since June after being granted a contract that was not put out to competitive tender.
Details of the contract have not been made public and Ofqual declined to say how much public money had been spent hiring Public First.
The firm is understood to have been initially contracted to assist Ofqual with communicating its A-level and GSCE results plan to help secure public confidence in the strategy.
A spokesperson for Ofqual said it initially contracted Public First without a tender to work on “insight on public opinion for this year’s exam arrangements”. The spokesperson added: “Public First is currently assisting Ofqual’s small communications team with an unprecedented amount of media interest in a complex policy area.”
Wolf, a former adviser to Gove when he was shadow education secretary, is one of several staff from Public First who are understood to have worked with Ofqual on the approach to the awarding of A-level, BTec and GCSE grades for students, who were unable to take their exams due to the Covid-19 school closures.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson told the Guardian that Gove had not been involved in Ofqual’s appointment of Public First. They said: “The Cabinet Office had no involvement in the contract and did not discuss it with Ofqual.”
The algorithm used by Ofqual downgraded 40% of the A-level grades assessed by teachers under the process set after the exams were cancelled, leading to a storm of protest from students, parents, school leaders and teachers, that culminated in a complete government U-turn on Monday and the system being scrapped.
Wolf, who co-wrote the Conservative party’s 2019 election manifesto, owns Public First with Frayne, whose work alongside Cummings – the prime minister’s senior adviser – dates back to Eurosceptic campaigning 20 years ago. In 2011 Frayne was appointed the Department for Education’s director of communications when Gove was education secretary and Cummings was his chief political adviser.
At that time Wolf was running the New Schools Network (NSN), which promoted Gove’s flagship policy of establishing “free schools,” and was awarded a £500,000 contract by the Department for Education without a tender. That contract was justified on the basis that the NSN was the only organisation able to provide expert support quickly enough.
Ofqual, the government agency with responsibility for the integrity of examinations, contracted Public First in early June when the agency’s chair, Roger Taylor, was facing up to the unprecedented task of awarding results with no exams having been taken.
It has not been suggested that Public First was involved in developing the algorithm itself. The contract is understood to run until the end of September, when the grades would have long been awarded and university, college and further education places allocated to this year’s new students.
Public First does not appear on Ofqual’s public register of invoices above £25,000 issued by outside companies, which was last updated on 29 July but whose most recent entry was dated 19 June – around a week after the contract is understood to have been signed.
The Ofqual spokesperson said that usual tendering rules, which typically require open and competitive bids, were bypassed when granting the Public First contract because of “exceptional circumstances”, and that the exams watchdog planned to publish details of the contract at a future date.
“Due to the exceptional circumstances presented by the cancellation of exams, the single tender justification process was used for this contract, due to the need to urgently procure the work, in line with our procurement policy.”
It is the third batch of work Public First is known to have secured from the government in recent months without having to bid for a public tender.
The Guardian previously revealed how the firm was awarded an £840,000 contract by the Cabinet Office, where Gove is the minister, to research public opinion about the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. That contract, which runs until September, included the secondment of a Public First partner, Gabriel Milland, to work on communications in Downing Street.
On Wednesday, the Daily Mirror reported that Public First was given another £116,000 contract by the Department of Health and Social Care to identify ways to “lock in the lessons learned” by the government during the Covid-19 crisis.
Public First did not respond to questions from the Guardian about the contract with Ofqual.
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