Time for change: How a young woman plans to shake up the school system

Rachel Wolf has helped shape the Tories' policy and has already set up her own think tank. Is she the face of the next Conservative decade?

Meet Rachel Wolf, who at just 24, is aiming to transform the school landscape. And, if the Tories come to power next year, she may well succeed. She plans to encourage parents, charities and for-profit companies to set up hundreds of new independent state schools.

Pupils will be paid for by the Government, but the schools will be free to offer the education they choose. Last month she set up her own think-tank, the New Schools Network, to help make this happen, and knows she has the prevailing educational wind in her sails.

After all, the idea is already up and running on a small scale with the Labour Government's academies programme. Now, as a former adviser to shadow schools secretary Michael Gove, she has been able to shape and extend it so that it sits squarely within Tory plans to tackle social ills by lifting the yoke of big government from people's shoulders. Potential school providers are already sniffing around this new market, while specialist groups such as the Steiner and Montessori schools sense a golden opportunity.

But who is Rachel Wolf? And where has she found the confidence to bound so youthfully on to the national stage? Meet her and you realise quickly that a short answer might be "from within her own head". She has a powerful intellect, steely determination and a clear ability to marshal data. Ideas excite her, and she speaks rapidly and well about those she has come to believe in. She knows she is young to be doing what she's doing. "But I really want this to happen. And I thought: if I don't do it now, then when?" she says.

A longer answer might be that she has been preparing for it her whole life. Her father is Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, and her mother is Alison Wolf, professor of public-sector management at King's College, London, and an expert on education and employment. "So I was always interested in education, always aware of it. And, yes, of course there were plenty of arguments at home at mealtimes. We're an urban, Jewish, intellectual family!"

She went to her local Dulwich primary school, then to Alleyn's, an independent school in south London, and on to study natural sciences at Cambridge. "I think I imagined myself finding some amazing cure for cancer and saving the world. I always, as long as I can remember, have wanted to feel I was helping someone with something."

Yet she and chemistry did not see eye to eye, so she abandoned thoughts of postgraduate study and went back-packing with friends to Mexico. While there, she received a job alert from the university careers service for a research post with Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, wrote the required two essays – one on higher education, one on the Taj Mahal – danced all night in a Cancun club, caught an overnight flight home, was interviewed two hours after she landed and got the job. "From then on, I got sucked in," she says.

That job led to working on Johnson's mayoral campaign, and to helping Michael Gove shape the Tories' education policy. However, she insists she is not at all political, and would never take money from any political party for her New Schools Network."I am your classic centrist swing voter," she says. "Although the Tory Party is now something I could support – not surprising, really, since I wrote lots of the policies."

Much of her time was spent looking at the experience of Sweden and the US in allowing state independent schools to flourish. Last February, she went to New York and was blown away by the city's alternative schools, including the Kipp (knowledge is power programme) schools, whose exhilarating, high-voltage programmes are transforming the chances of deprived city children.

"When you go to a building and on the first two floors there's an ordinary school, where the children have absolutely no aspirations, but on the third floor there's a Kipp school where all the children are convinced, completely convinced, that they are going to college, it's amazing. Schools like this have redefined the educational landscape."

This is what she wants to do in Britain. A mixed school economy will, she says, allow new energy to explode into our system and force existing schools to up their game. All the evidence from the US is that the independent charter schools make state schools better. "They give them an incentive to stay attuned to parents and provide new models of innovation and attainment." Charter schools also transform the achievements of poorer children. "That for me is what it is all about. Why should children in deprived areas not have the same sort of choices that children from wealthier families have?"

A big driver for change, she believes, will be young teachers coming up through the fast-track Teach First programme. In America, young graduates from the Teach for America programme, on which Teach First is based, have done much to get alternative schools off the ground.

It is parents, however, worried about class sizes, attainment and discipline, who have been hitting the New Schools Network's phone lines the hardest, asking how to set up schools. "I really believe that individuals have a lot more sense than people give them credit for. Parents know what is best for their children, so if they are unhappy with what is on offer, why shouldn't they be free to set up alternatives?"

In Rachel Wolf's ideal school landscape a whole range of new schools will spring up, lightly regulated and inspected – "I'm not some wild free-marketeer" – but free to design their own curriculum and pay teachers what they like. State schools, she says, will be able to live with these newcomers, and even if they do take a financial hit from the changes, there is wastage in the education budget that can be addressed. "For example, there are questions over the use of classroom assistants and probably a lot that can also be looked at in IT."

The New Schools Network is modelled on a similar advice centre in New York, and has Geoffrey Owen, a former Financial Times editor, as its chair, and Bruce Liddington, the former schools commissioner for England, and Julian Le Grand, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, among its trustees. She declines to name her financial backers. saying only that they are "a relatively small number of individuals who have a long-standing interest in supporting education projects, particularly the academy programme."

The New Schools Network will advise on policy frameworks, and offer support and mentoring to those setting up schools. What goes on in those schools will not be its concern. If they are good, they will succeed. If not, they won't.

So does she have any doubts at all about the power of such a system to transform education? "You have to get the framework right. But there are so many studies that show the benefits."

And what does she see herself moving on to, after this is off the ground? "I have no idea. This is a long-term thing for me. I want to see it succeed. It's such an important idea, with so much potential. I can't think of any better education policy."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Sport
Floyd Mayweather will relinquish his five world titles after beating Manny Pacquiao
boxing
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
News
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux ...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Nursery Manager is required t...

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living