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Education shares go up and ...

There's big money in school business, but let the buyer beware... Clare Dean, Frances Rafferty and Jon Slater report.

Analysis by a city finance house shows that shares in education companies have out-performed the stock market in each of the past three years.

An investment of pound;1,000 made at the start of 1996 in education firms would now be worth pound;1,593 - compared to an average pound;1,473 return from other shares, says a study by Capital Strategies.

But investors should be wary. Shares in education firms have fluctuated heavily, proving highly sensitive to government announcements about the future of state schools.

Kevin McNeany, chairman of Nord Anglia, and education's first millionaire, has seen his paper wealth slashed frompound;25 million last March to just under pound;15m. At the start of this week, shares for the company were trading at just over half their price last March - despite a pound;5m rise in its turnover last year.

It is not the only education company to suffer. Teacher-recruitment specialist Spring Group's share price has fallen to pound;1.75 after a high last year of pound;4.93.

Nord Anglia's rise began in January 1998 when Michael Barber, a senior government adviser, named it as one of the front runners to lead education action zones.

The value of Mr McNeany's own shares rose by pound;3.6m in a few days, when the price rocketed from pound;1.94 to pound;2.58.

Nord Anglia's business interests include private schools here and overseas, courses for teachers of English as a foreign language, and inspections for the Office for Standards in Education.

Its share price continued to rise to a peak of pound;4.50 in March, mirroring the FTSE all- share price index.

It roller-coasted during April and May but never dropped below pound;3.80. In June, when the Government announced the first 12 education action zones, shares were worth more than pound;4.20.

However, Nord Anglia's role in the zones was much smaller than anticipated. Its share price then slumped along with the FTSE index. The FTSE rallied at the end of September.

It saw slight improvement in the autumn, rising to just more than pound;2 following the Teacher Training Agency's announcement that the company would be running leadership courses for heads and Surrey County Council putting the management of King's Manor out to contract. But they fell to their lowest at under pound;1.30 at the start of this year.

It was the North of England conference in January that came to its aid with Education Secretary David Blunkett's call for private companies to take over failing councils. Since then its share price has been rallying and this week was pound;2.61.

The company, which is now bidding to take over failing councils, has also been hit by the slump in demand for English courses abroad because of the Asian recession.

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