REVEALED: The Brexit-backing businessmen taking control of England’s schools

One freezing night this past January, 150 people packed into a church hall in the Hertfordshire town of Stevenage, some 30 miles north of London. Students, teachers, support staff, parents and grandparents had come to support their community’s secondary school against the Conservative government’s plan to hand control to a super-wealthy couple.

A young man called Dylan Jones, the school’s “head student”, stood up to speak. “I have been part of the school since 2012,” he said. “It’s the best it’s ever been. It’s just a shame that those who have not had the same opportunity as me to see every student, every class, and those who have not seen us for the true community that we are, have decided that they can push us around because we do not have a voice.”

***

In England today almost 9,000 schools with more than 4 million pupils operate outside of their democratically-accountable local authorities. These schools are state-funded but independent of local control. The charitable trusts that run them are accountable only to the Secretary of State for Education, not to local people. They are, at least for now, “not for profit”. Here, we’re focussing on the 189 schools with more than 100,000 students that are controlled by wealthy businessmen and Conservative party donors mostly, through private contracts agreed with central government as part of the “academies” scheme.

One fabulously rich 77 year old man controls schools attended by some 36,000 children. When he dies, his powers over the schools that bear his name will pass to his wife or sons. He doesn’t actually own those schools. He and his family just have control of their entire governance structures.

That elderly man is Philip Harris. Given a peerage by Margaret Thatcher as Baron Harris of Peckham, he’d made his money in carpets. He has funded the Conservatives over decades-more than £900,000 in the past 15 years alone, a small dent in his fortune which has been estimated at approaching £300m.

Harris backs Brexit, the hard-right project to take Britain out of the European Union. Two years ago he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

For fun, Harris and his wife own world-class show jumping horses with their friends the Kirkhams. Lord (Graham) Kirkham, who made his billion in sofas, is another big Conservative donor given a peerage by the Conservatives.

In the battle for the Conservative party leadership this past summer Harris handed out £20,000 to Dominic Raab, and another £10,000 to Michael Gove. Then, in the campaign’s closing weeks, he gave £30,000 to the man he’d once called too lazy and unpredictable to make a good Prime Minister: Boris Johnson.

His ally and beneficiary Michael Gove MP, a former Murdoch journalist, once asserted that Harris is a hero who has done more than the Labour party has for working class children’s education.

But something else is going on. This “philanthropy” comes with strings attached. And, like Brexit, it’s one strand of a bigger, hard right project.

***

Here we’ll introduce a few more of the powerful men – some count their wealth in hundreds of millions of pounds – who have deployed their money and power to push Brexit, shrink the state and take England’s state education out of public hands. We’ll try to shed some light on how Dylan Jones and his community in Stevenage came to lose their voice.

***

First, where did “academies” come from?

Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced the concept of business “sponsors” taking over the governance of schools through the City Technology Colleges policy which produced 15 such colleges from 1988-1993. (Lord Harris was in at the beginning.)

Tony Blair’s New Labour adapted the idea, introducing 203 “city academies” to replace “failing” inner city comprehensives and “break the cycle of deprivation”. “Sponsors” would get the right to set school curricula, pupil admissions and teachers’ pay and conditions. Local authorities would lose control.

The first sponsors were obliged to invest money in the schools as a condition of gaining such influence. Labour scrapped the requirement, requiring them to invest only their time and expertise.

Then came a radical expansion.

In four years as Conservative education secretary Michael Gove, relying heavily on his friend and long-time special adviser Dominic Cummings, rapidly expanded the academies project. A Department for Education press release promised “freedom” and “empowerment”, language Gove and Cummings would later recycle to push Brexit. “Academies put power back into the hands of headteachers”, they claimed.

Who is driving education “reform”?

Gove made some startling non-executive appointments to the Department for Education board, as we reported in Gove’s own Operation Trojan Horse: the privatisation of our schools five years ago. The men, whose mission was to “drive reform of our education system”, included:

  • Theodore Agnew, businessman and big Tory party donor, trustee of right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange and trustee of the New Schools Network which got £500,000 of public money to advise anyone who wanted to set up a ‘free school’;
  • John Nash, businessman and big Tory party donor, then on the board at Sovereign Capital, the private equity fund he co-founded, and ‘sponsor’ of Pimlico Academy (glossary note: sponsor (noun) = controller) In 2013, as Nash was elevated to the Lords), Gove made him schools minister;
  • Paul Marshall, chairman of the hedge fund Marshall Wace and a founding trustee of the ARK Schools group;
  • Jim O'Neill, formerly chairman at Goldman Sachs Asset Management.
  • Anthony Salz: Star corporate lawyer (formerly of Freshfields), formerly on the board at Rothschild, the bankers.

We’ll return to Agnew, Nash and Marshall in this piece.

“Mind-blowing” lack of accountability

When Gove, Cummings and their private equity collaborators took control at the Department for Education in May 2010 there were 203 academies. By September 2012 there were 2,309 – a tenfold increase.

The parliamentary Public Accounts Committee published its highly critical report on the academy expansion programme in April 2013. ConservativeMP Richard Bacon described the lack of accountability as “mind-blowing”. He said academy chains “could hide something by taking a little bit from several pots” and “parents would never know.”

Among parents and teachers resistance grew.

A Guardian investigation revealed in 2014 that academy chains had paid millions of pounds into the private businesses of directors, trustees and their relatives.

While Prime Minister David Cameron apparently backed the Gove-Cummings education reforms, the pair’s conduct proved toxic enough to impact the polls, and Cameron sacked Gove in 2014.

According to the Guardian, Cummings blogged: “We got away with subverting every W/hall & No10 process, & it took DC 4 yrs to surrender.” Cummings would later re-emerge, more visibly, as the brains behind Brexit, a senior aide to Boris Johnson, and a director of Vote Leave, the official campaign pushing Brexit.

Today almost 9,000 of these quasi-independent schools operate outside of their democratically-accountable local authorities. The schools’ combined assets in 2017-18 totalled nearly £60bn, a figure that rises as more schools convert. The largest academy chain, the United Learning Trust, had total income of £288m last year.

This huge transfer of power from public to private hands has happened under-the-radar. We’ve gone digging in the Electoral Commission’s political finance database. We’ve trawled the constitutions that govern the controlled schools – that’s how we discovered that Lord Harris can pass control of the Harris Federation schools down through his family. We’ve used data analysis to track how many children are in trusts now controlled by wealthy businessmen. We’ve drawn upon Warwick’s 22 years’ in-depth reporting on education. And we’ve tried to learn a little of the sometimes overlapping lives of men who exert so much power and influence over other peoples lives.

A particular kind of excellence

In June of this year a man called Jon Moynihan made the biggest single cash donation to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign: £100,000.

Moynihan had already handed more than £120,000 to Vote Leave. (Since 2002 he’d given another £135,000 to the Conservatives.) He has chaired the Vote Leave Finance Committee, and Vote Leave’s Campaign Committee.

And he was the founding director in June 2016 of a company calling itself Parents and Teachers for Excellence – a particular kind of excellence that exists outside of local community control. Moynihan’s fellow founding director, Rachel de Souza, is a former teacher and chief executive of Inspiration, the academy trust founded by big Tory donor –and current academies minister – Theodore (Lord) Agnew.

Jon Moynihan is the venture capitalist who made his first fortune in the United States as a partner in First Manhattan Consulting, and his next in the UK over two decades leading PA Consulting, an employee-owned firm that earned half its revenue from the public sector. Moynihan told the Financial Times the ultimate outcome of selling advice to the public sector would be to make government so small there would be “hardly anything to consult upon”.

In a lecture for Balliol, his old Oxford college, in 2013 he dismissed the idea of austerity. “I hope you all know there is no austerity,” he said. “All this stuff about austerity is insane political jousting that I just don’t understand”.

Now aged 71, Moynihan is the joint principal at Ipex Capital, a venture capital spin-off from PA Consulting. A long time supporter of the neoliberal Institute of Economic Affairs, he joined its board of trustees last year.

His wife is the milliner Patricia Underwood who has made hats for Gwyneth Paltrow and Queen Noor of Jordan. The couple reportedly divide their time between London and New York. Lately, according to luxury real estate agents Corcoran, their Manhattan mansion sold for $6.7m.

Jon Moynihan is only one of the white male British fifty, sixty and seventy-something multi-millionaires whose common cause is pushing Brexit, shrinking the state and taking state education out of public control.

Who are the others and what are their interests?

The millionaires running our schools

David Ross chairs an academy trust, bearing his name, which runs a chain of 34 academies educating 13,000 pupils. He controls the schools’ governance via a separate charity that has the right to appoint trustees, and also bears his name (“my foundation” he has called it).

Ross’s family hails from Grimsby, where his grandfather ran a seafood business. In 2016 he wrote in the London Evening Standard that the “shock felt in the London establishment” at the Brexit vote proved it was out of touch-unlike Ross himself who spent days every month in his foundation’s schools in towns like Northampton, Corby, Kettering, Skegness and Bridlington, places he said had been “left behind by the surging wealth of London”.

Ross, aged 54, is the £668m man (according to the Sunday Times Rich List) who co-founded Carphone Warehouse with Charles Dunstone, a friend from their days at Uppingham, the 400-year-old private school in Rutland where fees today run close to £40,000 a year.

He sometimes drops in on “his” academies by private helicopter.

In October 2008 Ross provided a helicopter for his friend David Cameron (then leader of the opposition) to fly from London to West Yorkshire and back (according to the parliamentary Register of Members’ Interests). Two months later he resigned from the Carphone Warehouse board after failing to declare that he had used his shareholding as security for personal loans. Writing in the Daily Mail, Peter Oborne urged Cameron to “choose his friends VERY carefully”.

Ross has donated £166,000 to the Conservative Party or its MPs since 2006, including £40,000 just before Cameron was elected as Prime Minister in 2010. His most recent gift was £10,000, in July during the Tory leadership elections, to Boris Johnson.

Irvine Laidlaw, 76, a former Conservative peer and one of Scotland’s richest men, sold his conferences and training business for £768m in 2005.

Two years later, he would give the Conservative party £3m – that’s among the top 10 highest donations in the 19-year history of the Electoral Commission’s benefactions database.

Laidlaw, the son of a Banffshire mill owner, attended the fee-charging Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. In 2008, The Scotsman reported that Laidlaw “admitted taking part in orgies with prostitutes, charging £3,000 a night, at his Monaco tax haven home”.

He had a lucky escape off the coast of Maine in 2009 when his helicopter crashed en route to his 182ft luxury superyacht Lady Christine. He was one of the immensely rich peers who stood down from the House of Lords in 2010, apparently to avoid being resident in the UK for tax purposes. The Daily Telegraph reported in 2013 that he was putting his £17m collection of sports racing cars up for auction.

Laidlaw controls a six-school group of academies, educating 4,000 pupils, in England’s North-East, via a trust which is named after him. Its constitution lists Laidlaw as the schools’ “principal sponsor”, ultimately in control of its board via the ability to appoint and dismiss trustees.

***

Theodore Agnew, 58, is another Tory donor businessman who was appointed to the House of Lords – as Baron Agnew of Oulton – in order to become the minister responsible for the academies system as a whole.

Agnew made his fortune in motor insurance, setting up Town and Country Assistance in 1988 and selling it for an undisclosed sum in 2002. He founded the private equity firm Somerton Capital in 2007. In an interview with the Eastern Daily Press in 2013 Agnew said he had outsourced jobs from Ipswich, where he would have been paying “£1,000 a month for people with low skills”, to India, where a maths graduate could be paid £70 a month.

Agnew, who attended the private Beeston Hall school in Norfolk and then Rugby School, collaborates closely with his friend Michael Gove.

Gove put Agnew on the board at the Department for Education in 2010, and put him on the Ministry of Justice board in 2015.

Agnew is a former trustee of Policy Exchange, the Conservative think-tank co-founded by Gove (that’s rated E by Who Funds You? the campaign for think-tank transparency).

Agnew founded the 13-school, 6,600-pupil Inspiration Trust in 2012. Eleven of its academies are in Norfolk, where he grew up and owns a sprawling property outside of Great Yarmouth. His wife, Clare, was this year appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk.

Lord Agnew stood down as an Inspiration trustee in August 2018, 11 months after becoming an academies minister. The chain is chaired by his business associate, David Tibble. Until 2018, there were only three controlling members of this trust, who had the right to appoint and dismiss its trustees: Lord Agnew, Lady Clare and Tibble.

In an appearance at the Schools and Academies Show in Birmingham in November last year Agnew said he was “like a pig out hunting for truffles when it comes to finding waste in schools”, and he would bet any headteacher “a bottle of champagne and a letter of commendation” that he could identify more potential savings in their schools. Buried at the very end of a Department for Education press release about ministerial portfolios on 11 September 2019:

Agnew has donated £162,250 since 2007 to the Conservatives including a £3,250 donation to Gove’s leadership campaign in 2016.

***

Sir Rod Aldridge is 72 and the former executive chairman of Capita, one of the biggest beneficiaries of central and local government outsourcing. He stepped away from the company in 2006 following controversy over a £1m loan to the Labour Party.

Since then, Aldridge has been “sponsoring” academies. The London-based chain which bears his name has nine of them – educating 6,500 pupils – including a school at the foot of the Grenfell Tower in Kensington, West London.

Aldridge was reported last year to be worth £135m. A website listing his family interests highlights Aldridge Education, the academy chain, alongside a private equity business called Aldridge Wealth. “Wealth can be a force for good,” says the website of this “private family organisation”.

Aldridge has been one of three controlling members of the academy trust which bears his name. Another member is a separate charitable trust which Aldridge set up. Members have the right to appoint and dismiss trustees, although Aldridge himself stood down as a trustee of the academy trust in October. In a recent article published on the website of the private bank Coutts, Aldridge described the Aldridge Education schools as “my academies”.

***

Sir Paul Marshall, a prominent Brexiter who gave £100,000 to Vote Leave, chairs another large academy chain, Ark Schools. This London-based trust has 38 schools and 26,000 pupils.

Marshall co-founded the hedge fund Marshall Wace with Ian Wace, who, like Sir Paul, sits on the overarching board at Ark, which controls appointments to the board at the academy chain. Another member is the former Conservative Party treasurer, Lord Stanley Fink. Marshall and Wace were each said to be worth £590m by this year’s Sunday Times Rich List.

Marshall had donated to Liberal Democrats on the right of the party, including Nick Clegg, David Laws and Steve Webb, until the Brexit vote when he switched to Michael Gove, paying £3,500 and £10,000 to Gove’s leadership campaigns in 2016 and 2019.

As education minister Gove appointed Marshall lead Non-Executive Director at the Department for Education in 2013. Marshall is chairman of the Education Policy Institute think-tank that hired David Laws, the investment banker turned Liberal Democrat politician who served as schools minister under the Coalition government, when he lost his parliamentary seat in 2015. The Institute’s biggest funder by far (£750,000+) is the Sequoia Trust. According to its 2018 accounts at the Charities Commission Sequoia held £174m in funds and received £50m in donations and gift aid from its trustees who included Sir Paul Marshall and his wife Sabine Marshall.

***

Lord John Nash, 69, is a Conservative businessman who for nearly five years oversaw the academies programme, as a government minister.

Nash attended Milton Abbey, a boarding school in Dorset, took a law degree at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, became a barrister, then went into finance, co-founding the private equity firm Sovereign Capital. He was chair of the British Venture Capital Association in 1988-89, and is a former chair of the private healthcare firm Care UK, one of the NHS’s biggest contractors.

Lord Nash was on the board of the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies until his appointment in January 2013 as a Conservative peer and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools. He was appointed as a non-executive director at the Department for Education in 2010 by his friend, Michael Gove.

Nash and his wife, Caroline, a former stockbroker, together oversee Future Academies, a chain of seven schools with 3,800 pupils. Until last year, all of its schools were in central London – its headquarters are in Pimlico, not far from the Houses of Parliament. Recently it has been expanding into the home counties and is lined up to take over the chain that was sponsored in the name of yet another Tory businessman donor, David Meller, until he stood down in the wake of the Presidents Club affair last year.

Nash and his wife, Lady Caroline, not only sit on its overarching board, which Lord Nash chairs, but also chair some of the schools’ individual governing bodies, (see governance documents.)

The Nashes, who set up a charity in 2006 which controls Future’s schools, have given almost £400,000 to the Conservatives, including a £21,000 gift to the future health secretary, Andrew Lansley, in 2009 and a total of £125,000 during 2018 to Shaun Bailey, the party’s current candidate for London mayor, who sits alongside the Nashes on the board of governors of a Future academy.

Remember the packed church hall in Stevenage that freezing night in January, when head student Dylan Jones spoke up for his school and complained that the community “do not have a voice”?

The school in question was the Barclay School and that night the Nashes hovered over it.

The school had failed an inspection by the schools inspectorate Ofsted. (It’s a controversial body – David Ross himself had been tipped to run Ofsted when Gove was education secretary). Ofsted’s judgement meant that, under Conservative government legislation introduced in 2016, ministers were obliged to start the process of converting their community school into a privately-operated academy. (A one-way street: failing academies can not go back under public control).

The Barclay community felt their school was improving already without the need for this change.

Of 18 speeches during this two-hour crisis meeting, not one was in favour. Instead speaker after speaker spoke against.

Dylan Jones said: “Barclay school is the best it’s ever been.”

Barclay parent Peter Hawkins said Future’s governance structure, which the Nashes dominate, meant: “No-one has any right to challenge what they do.”

There was indeed nothing the community could do. Parents, pupils and rank-and-file staff members have little or no influence over decision-making. 

Taking control from teachers, schools and parents

Back in 2012, when Future ran just one school, in Pimlico, central London, one staff member had told us good teachers were leaving, propelled by multiple concerns that included the sponsoring couple’s predilection for a traditional, perhaps private school, approach to the curriculum. “We all as professionals can disagree with what the Nashes want to do,” they told me. “But what can we do about it? It’s their project.”

In community after community parent protests and staff strikes have backed schools’ existing management in preference to “academisation”, but the Conservative government has forced its plans through regardless.

It can do so in part because so much of the business of academies is hidden from public view. In closed meetings officials and their advisers decide which trust takes control of which school. Communities are denied detailed reasons why one trust has been chosen over another, denied the right to challenge them.

Academy trusts are currently set up to be not-for-profit. Michael Gove said, shortly after becoming Education Secretary that he was not “ideologically opposed” to profit-making. Two years later, he told the Leveson Inquiry that for-profit provision could happen. It is not hard to envisage a scenario in which for-profit state schooling could be allowed. In which case, privatisation in all its manifestations would have arrived for England’s schools.

In any case, thanks to this most under-the-radar transfer of power, local democratic control of 9,000 English state-funded schools is already lost. And some of Britain’s wealthiest businessmen, who have collectively paid millions to the Conservatives, find themselves in command of children’s futures.


This piece, edited by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, is a collaboration between Warwick Mansell’s website Education Uncovered, the Shine A Light investigative project, and openDemocracy.

We contacted Future Academies over the phone and by email for comment. At the time of publication, we had yet to receive a response.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *