Concern over Capita chief's philanthropy

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Ministers' doubt revealed over backing of academy. Warwick Mansell reports

The Government had serious concerns about allowing one of Britain's most successful businessmen to sponsor a pound;27 million academy in a deprived area of the North-west, The TES can reveal.

Civil servants warned Rod Aldridge, chief executive of Capita, of a potential conflict of interest over his investment of up to pound;4m in the new school in Blackburn with Darwen, Lancashire. The warning is disclosed in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act that also reveal officials admitting they are "under pressure" over plans to launch 200 academies by 2010.

Mr Aldridge is sponsoring the Darwen academy, due to open next year, in a personal capacity. In 2001, his firm won a pound;190m, 15-year contract with Blackburn with Darwen council to support regeneration.

A note of a meeting in January 2004 between Neil Flint, head of the Government's academies division, and Peter Morgan, chief executive of the council, reveals the concerns. Mr Flint says the Government was keen to involve Mr Aldridge as a sponsor but "there were difficulties in his sponsoring an academy in the area because of his relationship with the council.

"I said this could be a significant problem for us and that it may mean that Rod's sponsorship was not possible in this area."

Mr Flint says he made it clear that this could be a "very tricky issue" when he spoke to Mr Aldridge and said he would raise the matter with ministers.

On April 30, 2004, Mr Flint wrote to Mr Aldridge to tell him ministers had agreed to the sponsorship. There was no legal obstacle to it, the letter said. But it was possible that conflicts of interest on matters of detail could arise between the academy and Capita's wider responsibility for regeneration in the area. Officials would discuss how to avoid this with the council.

A letter from Sir Bruce Liddington, academies division head of new projects, said the Government had reservations about Mr Aldridge's desire for the academy to specialise in entrepreneurship.

The Department for Education and Skills, which released the correspondence, said there was no conflict between the sponsorship and Capita's contract with the council. It said Mr Aldridge's sponsorship made the regeneration strategy more coherent, "while giving educational considerations priority".

There was no legal conflict of interest: the council had no difficulties arising from its contract with Capita and the academy's putative constitution also contained safeguards against this.

Peter Morgan, director of education and lifelong learning at Blackburn with Darwen council, said: "There is no conflict of interest. Mr Aldridge is personally sponsoring the proposed academy through his charitable trust."

A Capita spokeswoman said: "This is not a Capita-sponsored initiative. The proposal is from the Rodney Aldridge Charitable Trust, a foundation personally funded by Rodney Aldridge to support projects promoting educational opportunities and social inclusion."

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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