4 of the best: Agnew's infamous 'foot in mouth' moments

The academies minister is leaving the DfE, but the notoriously outspoken Conservative peer has definitely made his mark

Lord Agnew leaves academies minister role

It has been said that Lord Agnew had a "unique ability to put his foot in his mouth" in his role as academies minister.

The former venture capitalist, who founded the Inspiration Trust academy chain, has spent much of his time as a minister attempting to identify efficiencies in school spending and crack down on academy CEO pay.

But he also often displayed a tendency to make controversial remarks to press his case and they didn't always go down too well – sparking fiery debates about academy finances, teacher pensions and university admissions.


News: Lord Agnew leaves academies minister role

Agnew: Minister suggests state-school teachers are ungrateful for their pensions

Admissions: Agnew says letting pupils into university with three Es is 'lunacy'


Today, as sources confirmed that the minister is leaving his role at the Department for Education after two years, we look back at some of his most notorious moments.

1. The 'champagne challenge'

In November 2018, Lord Agnew bet a bottle of champagne to any school where he could not find any waste, and said he was "like a pig hunting for truffles" when it came to identifying inefficiencies.

Appearing at the School and Academies Show in Birmingham, he was asked whether there was still further scope for schools to make savings, or whether they just needed more funding. 

“I think we’re only just getting warmed up on this, but I have to admit I’m like a pig hunting for truffles when it comes to finding waste in schools," he replied.

He then proceeded to lay down a challenge to school leaders in the room and those across the country.

“I would challenge anyone here, if they want to have a wager with me, that I can’t find some waste in your schools. I will take you on," he said. 

"I will use the teams I’ve got at the DfE to win that wager. If I lose the wager, which is entirely possible, I promise to give you a bottle of champagne and a letter of commendation.

"So is there anybody in there today who wants to take on that challenge?"

Lord Agnew's choice of language attracted criticism from Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

He said the minister's "champagne challenge" showed a government "in denial and out of touch" about the school funding crisis and that heads would feel "pretty patronised" by the remark.

"I would like to bet Lord Agnew a bottle of the cheapest, most austerity-friendly Liebfraumilch, that we could identify savings in the Department for Education and across government more generally," Mr Barton countered.

2. DfE-negotiated deals 'may be pants'

In the same month, he suggested that national commercial deals negotiated by the DfE to save schools money may be "pants".

In a speech to the national conference of the Institute of School Business LeadershipLord Agnew acknowledged that schools were facing funding pressures.

He said that “getting the best value for money from your non-staff costs is an area of our priority”, and cited two “buying hubs” the DfE had set up, as well as “a number of commercial deals”.

However, when he asked the audience whether they had actually used any of the deals created over the past 18 months, only about 10 per cent of people raised their hands.

“For me, this is a real challenge," he said at the event. "There are only two answers to that question. One is the deals we are doing are pants, and we are wasting our time, or we are not telling you about it loudly enough.

“If it’s the first, and these deals aren’t good enough, you really must tell us. I can’t put it any more bluntly than that. We need your feedback.”

3. Teachers are 'ungrateful' for pension contributions

Other controversial comments include his suggestion that teachers were ungrateful for the increase in employer contributions to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.

Speaking to a conference of independent school leaders in May 2019, Lord Agnew said: “The state school teachers, they don’t recognise that they’re getting a 42 per cent increase in pensions contributions. 

“They don’t say, ‘How wonderful – the state is really looking after us.'”

But Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, pointed out that teachers would not actually receive any extra money and accused the minister of putting his foot in his mouth.

4. Pupils with three Es going to uni is a 'lunacy'

Lord Agnew sparked fury for a second time that day when he said letting pupils with three Es at A level go to university is “a lunacy”.

He told a room of school leaders: “Why are we letting kids go to university with three Es at A level? Why? It’s a lunacy.

“There are people who are going to have to pick up the tab for that kind of madness.”

Again it was Mr Barton who took issue with the minister. “Lord Agnew needs to get out less,” he said.

"He’s working for a government that bangs on about social mobility, and one of the best ways to ensure social mobility is to go to university.

"We should be celebrating the fact that we’re trying to get young people into university.”

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