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Middle East mogul expands his empire

A private company founded in the Middle East has become the biggest manager of independent education in Britain after buying 10 schools, bringing its total to 13.

The sudden rise of Global Education Management Systems comes as both Labour and Tories promote policies that would create further business for the group.

Gems spent pound;11.9 million last week buying all of Nord Anglia's British schools, seven of which are in the north-west of England. It now runs 13 schools in Britain and 36 worldwide, and plans to spend at least pound;190m more expanding its UK operation.

Gems founder, Dubai businessman Sunny Varkey said he hopes to manage around 200 schools in the UK within the next five years.

Mr Varkey may be able to help Labour plans to create more than 200 academies. The party wants help from private firms and Gems is interested in sponsoring at least two of them.

Meanwhile, the Tories have promised state funding for places at cheaper independent schools. The party said that Gems, which runs schools with annual fees as low as pound;6,000, would be ideal for this scheme. The Conservatives even quoted Gems director Simon Cummins in its new education pamphlet The Right to Choose.

It also emerged this week that former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson has been acting as the company's vice-chairman for the past two months and taken a lead on strategic decisions. Mr Tomlinson, who is also in charge of Hackney's schools and the Government's inquiry into 14-19 education, had previously stressed that he was purely an adviser.

However, the day after being contacted by The TES, Gems claimed that Mr Tomlinson had suddenly decided to step down as vice-chairman and return to chairing its advisory board.

Members of the National Union of Teachers in Hackney are calling for Mr Tomlinson to resign as chairman of the borough's Learning Trust over his work with Gems. Hackney NUT spokesman Mark Lushington said: "How can someone working in one of the poorest boroughs in Europe advocate a choice that is only available to the financially privileged?"

Other heavyweight advisers to Gems include Sir Michael Bichard, who led the recent inquiry into the Soham murders, James Sabben-Clare, former head of Winchester college, John MacBeath, professor of education at Cambridge University, and Dr Elizabeth Passmore, a former director of inspection at Ofsted.

Gems recently sent a promotional DVD to 2,000 private schools to persuade them to contract out their management. It featured interviews with Mr Tomlinson, Sir Michael and Dulwich college head Graham Able.

In the video, Mr Tomlinson said: "I think the child has an absolute right to a high-quality education and that parents and their children have a right to choose where they have that."

Gems already owns and runs Bury Lawn school in Milton Keynes, Sherborne House, Southampton, and Sherfield School, Basingstoke, scheduled to open in September this year.

New acquisitions from Nord Anglia include schools in Urmston, Marple, Bolton, Oldham, West Didsbury, Ormskirk and Bingley, West Yorkshire.

Nord Anglia said it was selling the schools to concentrate on its more profitable nursery business.

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