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Rise of the empire of Sunny

He's already one of the biggest private school operators in the UK, and now he's sponsoring state academies ... Graeme Paton on the Dubai tycoon making huge waves in British education.

Sunny Varkey has all the trappings of wealth you would expect from the typical Dubai millionaire. Visitors to the entrepreneur's luxurious offices might be picked up from the airport in a Bentley, from his fleet of chauffeur-driven cars, and whisked through the thriving metropolis.

On their way, they might spot an extraordinary project taking shape off the coast of the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates: private man-made islands for the super-rich, one in the shape of a palm, the other resembling a map of the world.

Naturally the headquarters of Global Education Management Systems and the Varkey Group are air-conditioned, just like his new schools, which often come with swimming pools and the latest IT equipment Now, the Dubai businessman behind Gems, the world's biggest private schools company, has emerged as the latest high-profile figure to become a sponsor of the Government's city academies programme.

Mr Varkey's company Gems, which runs 42 private schools around the world, has brokered a deal with Milton Keynes council to sponsor two academies, the independent state schools, to be opened in 2008. Gems already owns a private school, Bury Lawns, in the town.

It is the latest flirtation by the chairman of Gems with the British state-school sector. Last year Gems purchased 3E's, a non-profit making company set up to manage failing state schools, giving the company direct influence over three secondaries and contracts to advise more than 100 others.

In an interview with The TES this week, Mr Varkey said he would welcome talks with the Government to offer further "support" to state schools. "We would love to be involved as much as we can with the state sector," he said. "Education is a business and we have acquired a lot of expertise over a number of years which can be beneficial to everyone. It does not matter if the individual is paying or the Government is paying."

Gems owns 13 schools in this country, including 10 bought from Nord Anglia.

Mr Varkey aims, eventually, to run around 200.

The millionaire, whose other business interest is healthcare, denies he has met Tony Blair or his advisers at Number 10, but he makes no secret of the fact that he wants government help to ease Gems' expansion in the UK.

The company has identified 10 to 15 greenfield sites suitable for building schools.

"We are trying to find greenfield sites to build new schools, then we can put up nice new campuses, newly designed with the latest technology," he said.

"But it is not easy with planning laws in the UK. That's where we look to the Government to give us some support.

"We are not asking for freebies. We will buy the land, but it is in the Government's interests to help us - when we start to make a profit, we will be paying taxes to the Government. It is gain all round." Mr Varkey, who was born in India, is rapidly becoming one of the most talked-about figures in UK education.

He has already tempted leading names on to the Gems advisory board, including Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Bichard, who led the Soham inquiry, and Dame Elizabeth Passmore, a former director of inspection at the Office for Standards in Education.

Gems schools in the UK, following a model operating in Gulf states, will cater for premium as well as "budget" customers, with fees ranging from pound;10,000 to just pound;2,000.

Mr Varkey said it was possible to keep fees below pound;5,000 because training, administration, recruitment and other overheads can be managed centrally.

Such low fees have already raised concerns among heads of smaller independent schools who believe Gems and other profit-making organisations, including Cognita, which is chaired by Chris Woodhead, may force them out of business.


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