Charting a course for the inner cities

12th August 2011 at 01:00
Analysis - Austria-based multi-millionaire Peter Wilkinson could be the next free-school movement pin-up. He tells Richard Vaughan that his own experience of educational 'failure' fires his ambition for his Compass educational charity

As the first free-school pioneers prepare to step into the educational unknown next month, a fresh batch of free-school hopefuls are already forming an orderly queue behind them in a bid to open their own schools in September 2012.

Just last week, the Department for Education announced the lucky few who have made it through to the next stage of the free-school application process to open next year. Among them is Peter Wilkinson, a multi-millionaire businessman who made his money in the railway industry.

If author and journalist Toby Young, the first of the free-schools pioneers, was not quite who education secretary Michael Gove had in mind when he launched his pet policy, then Mr Wilkinson does not quite fit the description either. Not on paper, at least.

A former professional motorbike racer and now a successful businessman who lives, for the most part at least, in Austria with his wife and two children, he is not who David Cameron was addressing when the prime minister launched his Big Society.

But if the entrepreneur gets his way, his new education charity, Compass Schools, could well be the next Ark or Harris, although it is unlikely you will hear him say that.

We meet in a trendy coffee shop alongside London's Borough Market, one of the capital's gastronomic hotspots.

Mr Wilkinson is chair of the Borough Market Trust which, as well as running and operating the weekly food market, also acts as a charitable organisation supporting local projects. It is from his work with the trust that he decided to take one step further and set up Compass, which will, if all the Department for Education's hurdles are cleared, provide a new secondary school in Southwark, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country.

"It is something to do with putting something back into a city that has been extremely generous to me," he says. "I don't come from London. My roots are in the North East and my circumstances were very different from those that I find myself in now. And London has been a big part of that."

If successful, Compass's school will be the first of six or seven free schools that the trust hopes to open in inner cities. The school in Southwark will be a 600 to 700-pupil comprehensive secondary taking around 100 pupils into Year 7 in its first year.

Lean, shaven-headed and in his mid-40s, Mr Wilkinson is a man with an unassuming, bookish look and attentive eyes. He is softly spoken, with the barely perceptible lilt of a man from the North.

He describes his own education as "mixed", having turned up to school one day to find an exam placed under his nose, which he subsequently failed. "Much like everyone else in my school," he says. "It was only later I realised it was the 11-plus."

His first day at secondary school was marked by an assembly held by the headteacher who told him and his fellow pupils not to worry about their future as the (local) car plant was still open and there were jobs aplenty there.

"I started thinking: 'How did this happen?' and that was at the tender age of 11," he muses. "I admit I wasn't the sharpest tool in the box in educational terms. I didn't get with school and school didn't get with me."

It was only after maturing a little that he recognised the importance of education. And having scraped a handful of exams and done some further growing up in the Army, he secured a place at university.

"This whole world of education opened up to me at that point, and I couldn't now be the man I am without having benefited from that. When I look back, the instrumental piece in the mix was this fantastic help from teachers that I was given outside of school, actually. They just put the effort in and they didn't get paid for that," he says.

Having flirted with a life of limited opportunity because of his education, Mr Wilkinson made a promise to himself that if he could ever put something back into education he would, but by providing something different from the "matriculation-based" approach that, he says, fails to capture the imagination of so many youngsters.

"Although my children live in Europe, my nieces and my friends' kids are going through England's school system and all you hear about them is that they're preparing for some exam. To me that's just nuts."

Mr Wilkinson wants to create a school that will be accountable to the DfE through test results, but will be accountable, first and foremost, to the community it serves.

"I live in this area, and when you leave early for work all you need to do is look at the bus stops and they are full of kids on part one of a long and complicated journey to go to school somewhere else," he says. "There doesn't seem to be secondary provision which is either accessible or which parents want to send their kids to."

Despite his life in mainland Europe, Mr Wilkinson is keenly aware of the challenges that face his part-time home. In his capacity as chair of the Borough Market Trust, he attends numerous community meetings and one issue stands out, quite literally, from all the rest.

The Shard of Glass, formerly London Bridge Tower, soon to be Europe's tallest building, is currently under construction a stone's throw from Borough Market and is casting an extremely long shadow.

The area immediately surrounding the tower, Borough and Bankside, is home to about 42,000 people. When completed, the Shard will bring with it 24,000 new residents and workers - more than 50 per cent of the area's population.

"You'd think people around here would be jumping for joy that it's being built, but they're not because they know that it won't be them or their kids getting the jobs that the Shard will be providing, but people coming over from the City in suits, or from international banks in other countries," he says ruefully.

"They feel that world, which is creeping into their territory is at the same time leaving them behind. This is where you get this disenfranchisement that I want to do something about, and it starts with school."

Compass's first school will offer its pupils the chance to study the International Baccalaureate diploma or the soon-to-be-released vocational IB diploma after GCSEs to give students a "broader base of subjects".

The school day will be longer and teachers will be expected to remain after lessons to work with the children.

"This is something that happens across Europe, where teachers work a normal business day from eight in the morning to 5.30 in the evening, but where lessons stop around one or two o'clock," Mr Wilkinson says. "Kids then stay on to do extra-curricular stuff but also to do homework in school, where there are teachers on hand to help them."

Mr Wilkinson believes he can provide for those children who are hard to reach, are not interested in academic studies, and who even the best teacher will not be able to engage, and part of that will be through a zero-expulsion policy at the school.

"I was one of them - that was me," he says. "What you cannot do is fail them. You do not do what society has a tendency to do, which is to treat them as being somehow outside the tent. You keep them in the tent and you work hard on it. You find out what they can do and you play to that."

It is clear these are the words of someone who briefly existed outside "the tent", of someone who is now thankful they are back inside it. Whether Mr Wilkinson and his new school will be successful in encouraging more to come in from the cold remains to be seen, but at least he is willing to try.

CV

1962: Born, St Albans

Education

1973-80: Attended a number of schools around the country due to his father's job

1980-83: Joined the Army

1983-86: Sheffield Hallam University

Employment

1988: London Underground

1996: British Railways Board

1998-2001: Group executive, Axa financial services

2002-present: Owning partner, Renaissance Trains and rail consultancy First Class Partnerships.

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