The Education Business
The Tory donor and businessman Sir Theodore Agnew has been made a life peer and appointed to replace his friend John Nash as the parliamentary under secretary for the school system. The job includes oversight of the nearly 7000 schools which have academy status.
Academies are established by a contract agreed in private between their founding members and Whitehall, rather than being under local authority control. The policy was set up under Tony Blair and saw the governance of a small number of struggling schools – mainly inner-city comprehensives – handed over to incoming ‘sponsors’, often from business backgrounds, who would be subject only to remote oversight from the Department for Education. The first three academies opened in 2002. The programme has expanded rapidly under the Conservatives. Multi-academy trusts, ministers’ favoured model for the organisation of state education, took off after Michael Gove became education secretary in 2010.
The Inspiration Trust was set up by Agnew in 2012. Based in Norwich, it currently has 14 schools, spread across Norfolk and into Suffolk. In its last published accounts, for 2015-16, the trust reported core income from the taxpayer of £33 million.
Academy governance operates at two levels. Trustees perform routine oversight of the trust’s management. Above them sit the trust ‘members’. They, like shareholders in a private company although academies are non-profit, have the power to appoint and dismiss trustees. The Inspiration Trust has three members: Agnew, his wife Clare and David Tibble. According to Companies House, Agnew and Tibble sit on the boards of at least two other companies together.
Agnew’s predecessor, Lord Nash, was academies minister for four years from 2013. During that time he continued to run Future Academies, the chain of five schools he set up not far from the Houses of Parliament. Future’s latest accounts list Nash and his wife Caroline as two of the trust’s four members; Nash is also the chair of trustees. Agnew was briefly one of Future’s trustees.
The DfE says that ministers will never be involved in decisions about their own organisations. Agnew has stepped down as the chair of trustees at the Inspiration Trust, but the trust says he remains as a member.
Last year, Dame Rachel de Souza, the chief executive of the Inspiration Trust, helped set up Parents and Teachers for Excellence, which campaigns for a return to more traditional, ‘knowledge-rich’ schooling. De Souza’s co-director at the charity is the venture capitalist Jon Moynihan, reportedly another Tory donor and funder of the Vote Leave campaign, who chairs the right-wing Institute for Free Trade.
David Hoare, a management consultant and friend of both Agnew and Nash, was the chair of Ofsted from 2014. He resigned last year after describing the Isle of Wight as a ‘ghetto’ where there had been ‘inbreeding’.
The chair of trustees at Ark Schools, a large and successful academy chain, is Sir Paul Marshall. He is also the chair of both the Marshall Wace hedge fund (his net worth was listed by the Sunday Times this year as £505 million) and the Education Policy Institute, where Agnew is also a trustee. Both of England’s last two chief inspectors of schools have worked with Marshall in the past.
It may be that all these businesspeople are getting involved in schools with the best of motives: they have succeeded in life and want to give something back. More contentiously, they may want to reshape a public service so it more closely resembles the business worlds with which they are familiar. How long will it be before the academies sector, which is currently not-for-profit, moves towards allowing schools to be run for private gain?