It was a Tuesday night in March, two days before Ruth Swailes, an expert on early years education, was due to travel to Manchester to speak at a conference. Nothing about the event – launching a government-funded hub to improve the education of children under five – had struck her as controversial. But that evening she opened a message from her co- presenter, Dr Aaron Bradbury, saying the government was blocking them both from attending.

Moreover, the multi-academy trust organising the event said because these two “unsuitable” experts were to be given a platform, the Department for Education (DfE) wanted to pull the plug on the whole conference.

“It was shocking,” Swailes says now. “I emailed the DfE straight away but they just said they’d get back to me. It all felt very cloak and dagger.”

The organisers were horrified – and adamant that Swailes and Bradbury, co-authors of one of the top-selling books on early childhood, must be allowed to speak.

After some negotiation, the DfE agreed that the event could happen, but only if Swailes and Bradbury appeared virtually via Zoom. Swailes assumes this was so that officials could “cut us off if they didn’t like what we were saying”.

The trust refused Zoom, insisting they couldn’t make 120 childminders and nursery workers give up their weekend to trek across the country then make them watch a screen.

After Swailes and Bradbury informed the DfE that the lawyers they had consulted took a very dim view of attempts to silence them, the two experts were allowed to speak in person. But Swailes notes that a senior government official turned up to “monitor” them.

Bradbury, who was actually advising the DfE on workforce development at the time, found the incident “traumatic”. “To be told that we couldn’t have this debate felt like we were living in a dictatorship, not a democracy,” he says.

Swailes was unsettled too. She filed a subject access request (SAR), which compelled the DfE to release any emails or documents mentioning her name. What came back was “scary”, she said, and opened a whole can of worms across the sector as other education experts known for voicing their opinions launched their own investigations.

Children playing in school playgrouund
Policy on early years education is at the heart of the controversy. Photograph: Susannah Ireland/The Guardian

“I discovered they had been keeping tabs on me,” Swailes says. The file she unearthed flagged tweets in which she was critical of Ofsted, the schools inspectorate. It noted occasions when she “liked” tweets promoting Birth to 5 Matters, guidance written by a coalition of early years experts rather than the government. One email calls her a “long-time critic” of the government’s early years policy – something she says isn’t true.

Whichever officials were following Swailes on Twitter (now X) – their names were redacted, so she has no idea – will also have seen posts about her husband Pete’s battle with terminal cancer, and the tribe of strangers and friends who shared pictures of their “snazzy socks” to cheer him up.

“When we met officials to talk about their attempt to cancel us, I pointed out that I am a freelancer and a single parent, recently widowed,” she explains. “I said: ‘I have two daughters, and my reputation is our livelihood, so none of this is OK.’”

Nine other education experts have now uncovered similar – often very lengthy – DfE files recording their tweets and any critical views. Many more are awaiting results.

Carmel O’Hagan, a consultant and expert in modern foreign languages, says reading the 37 pages of correspondence about her, which included an Excel spreadsheet detailing who she interacted with, was “distressing and hurtful”.

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One redacted DfE email commenting on her Twitter posts says she had “an axe to grind” because she worked for Cilt, the national centre for languages which the government closed and then decided to recreate. It said she had “a will to be destructive”.

O’Hagan describes this as “deeply unprofessional and puerile”.

Rachel Lofthouse, professor of teacher education at Leeds Beckett University, has extracted a DfE record on her stretching back five years and covering more than 60 pages.

“They are pulling up old tweets I’ve written in new emails to each other,” she says.

Prof Lofthouse says she filed the SAR because people she knew had been warned by the department that she was “persona non grata”.

“It has left me feeling jaded,” she says. “Instead of secretly monitoring me, why don’t they discuss these policy issues with me? It feels unethical.”

Swailes insists that none of those who have been monitored will be silenced. “They tried to ruin me, but they have only made me more vocal. Every so often I tag them and say: ‘You can add this to my file’.”