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The controversial Tory initiative to set up free schools received fast-track public funding after fierce lobbying from education secretary Michael Gove's inner circle of advisers, according to leaked emails.
Civil servants were urged that the New Schools Network (NSN) – a charity providing advice and guidance to set up the schools – should be given "cash without delay", in a disclosure which will heighten concern over the government's lack of transparency about the wider free schools programme.
The charity, which is headed by a former Gove adviser, was subsequently given a £500,000 grant. No other organisation was invited to bid for the work.
The award was made after an email from Dominic Cummings, a Tory strategist and confidant of Gove, called for: "MG telling the civil servants to find a way to give NSN cash without delay."
Cummings went on to work for the charity on a freelance basis.
Sent after the election last May, his message goes on to say: "Labour has handed hundreds of millions to leftie orgs – if u guys cant navigate this thro the bureauc then not a chance of any new schools starting!!"
The existence of the email can be revealed as the first 24 free schools prepare to open their doors to pupils.
The first wave of free schools includes one which has the journalist Toby Young as its chair of governors, two Jewish faith schools, a Hindu school and a Sikh school. At least three of the schools – Discovery new school in West Sussex, St Luke's in north London, and Canary Wharf college – will have a Christian ethos. The Maharishi school in Lancashire, which was founded by the Beatles' guru Maharish Mahesh Yogi and teaches children to meditate, has become a state school as part of the programme.
The schools will be the most prominent part of the Tories' "big society" vision, although in many cases faith organisations, education companies or existing academy sponsors have taken the lead rather than groups of parents or teachers.
The government has declined to reveal the costs of funding individual free schools but estimates the overall budget for buildings at between £110m to £130m.
It has also declined requests under the Freedom of Information Act to identify the groups applying to open free schools next year.
In the email Cummings sets out a timetable for the creation of free schools.
He outlines a list of demands – from a "legislative/regulatory timetable" to a "big early july conference with hundreds coming (paid for by dcsf)".
Legislation to enable the creation of free schools was pushed through parliament last summer under procedures usually reserved for counter-terrorism measures. The government held a free schools conference – which David Cameron addressed by videolink – in January.
The message was addressed to Gove; his senior policy adviser Sam Freedman; Rachel Wolf, who heads the NSN; and Gove's special adviser Henry de Zoete.
Lisa Nandy, a Labour member of the education select committee, said: "This is definitive proof that this was a way of diverting taxpayers' money to pay for a political agenda, at a time when the government was making huge spending cuts. Just shortly after that grant was announced they cancelled Building Schools for the Future – it's pretty shocking.
"This confirms what many suspected, that there is a political agenda behind the decision to hand over the money to the NSN. Gove has serious questions to answer – this message is addressed to him, the money was handed over shortly afterwards in a fog of confusion."
A further leaked email reveals the blurred boundaries which existed between Gove's team and the New Schools Network.
In the email, Wolf is asked by one of Gove's staff to provide the prime minister with a "line to take" after a Tory councillor in Birmingham raised concerns that a free school in his city had the potential to be "socially divisive and undermine … community cohesion".
Wolf worked as a special adviser to Gove while he was shadow education secretary. The NSN website says it is an "independent charity" which has been given a government grant to act as the first point of contact with free school proposers.
Nandy said the email indicated the NSN had been given public money to act as "a propaganda machine for a political agenda".
"What they are asking for is a way to play down the negative impact of free schools. They gave this contract to the New Schools Network to provide independent, impartial advice to people setting up free schools. That should surely include advice on the downside of setting up new schools, not just the positive. They were given taxpayers' money in order to act as a propaganda machine for a political agenda."
The email from Cummings gives an indication of the attitude towards the civil service by those around Gove.
He writes that: "There needs to be an announcement soon about indicative timetables for new schools and what is going to be achieved before august. Forcing the conference in july will force the department to focus on it."
Another leaked email exchange indicates Cummings was closely involved in government work, showing he was invited to a "prep session" ahead of the spending review last October.
According to the emails, this involved "posing challenging questions to SoS [Gove] to ensure that his briefing is adequate and to iron out any detailed narrative."
Wolf said that Cummings started work for the NSN as a volunteer at the end of June, and freelanced for them from July to December last year.
She said: "He initially volunteered then we hired him as a freelancer paid by the half day. He did various projects – mostly publications, communications and strategy. He averaged about 10 days a month.
"We were always extremely clear about what specific jobs he was doing for us. He had a standard freelance contract like the others we hire. Those jobs were not about Michael [Gove] and politics. We hired him because he's really, really good and we know that he believes in what we're doing, and he helped us out a lot.
"I'm confident we didn't do anything that was inappropriate. We're obviously very mindful of our obligations as a charity."
Wolf said the NSN had not received any government funds since mid-July and was being financed entirely by donors.
Cummings said the NSN has "unique abilities", and without it there would not have been any free schools this year.
"It was no secret that I thought NSN should be funded as fast as possible so that new schools could open as fast as possible – I said the same thing to senior officials many times."
A Department for Education spokeswoman said the NSN was an established support group and "was best placed to help get the free schools policy off the ground quickly, and to help meet the demand of parents for good, new local schools".
She added: "It is legitimate for government departments to award grants to charities and other organisations in certain circumstances. This in line with procurement rules and the Department for Education has done this before."