Private face of takeover king

8th June 2001 at 01:00
As his firm prepares to help manage a failing Surrey secondary, Biddy Passmore finds business is booming for millionaire and former English teacher Kevin McNeany.

KEVIN McNeany, the diminutive, twinkling chairman of Nord Anglia Education plc, is optimistic about the next five years.

Whoever won the election last night it spelt the same story. Private-sector involvement in state education is now a cross-party favourite.

As then schools minister Estelle Morris told heads last week, that means giving schools and local authorities - and not just failing ones - new powers to contract out key services to the private sector.

Or, in the words of Mr McNeany when announcing Nord Anglia's latest interim results (turnover up more than 9 per cent to pound;34 million, profits up by nearly 50 per cent to pound;1.5m): "The board is very positive about the future with many exciting prospects for swift growth in education outsourcing and a policy of further redefinition of our businesses in education delivery."

So Kevin McNeany has done pretty well for a former English teacher, even if the above suggests he has lost his capacity to write crisp English. Founder of the first education company to be floated on the Stock Exchange, he has built up the business from a string of language schools to encompass 19 independent schools, vocational colleges, nurseries, careers guidance and further education services.

But his attention has recently been focused on local education authorities (Hackney, Sandwell, now Waltham Forest) and state schools. He is attracted, he says, not just by profit but "by a genuine desire to contribute to the quality of education".

Now in his late 50s, Mr McNeany was born in the village of Keady, County Armagh, the eldest of seven children of a blacksmith. He studied English and economics at Queen's University, Belfast, and taught in Armagh and Leeds. He moved into FE, becoming head of English at Southport technical college, when his entrepreneurial instincts began to get the better of him. He started a holiday school in Southport teacing English as a foreign language ("Nord Anglia International") and had soon established a nationwide chain.

Kevin McMeany is often described as "the first millionaire businessman in education". But Neil McIntosh of CfBT, a non-profit-making education company, says McNeany doesn't see himself primarily as a businessman. "He's genuinely interested in education - that's what gives him a buzz."

Others say he is a ruthless imperialist who does not always think before he speaks. His blunt approach is know to have alienated parents at failing schools and some education authorityofficials.

Now, after two unsuccessful attempts to win contracts to take over failing Surrey schools, Nord Anglia has succeeded in its third attempt. It has won a seven-year management consultancy contract at Abbeylands, a comprehensive in Addlestone, Surrey, which is failing to attract pupils.

This is not a contract to run the school, says Surrey County Council firmly. When the school reopens as a foundation school in 2002, Nord Anglia will provide a range of support services to the governing body, chiefly acting as promoters and running business and other services.

Mr McNeany says Surrey was compelled by law to make Nord Anglia consultants to the governors and hopes the new Government will introduce legislation to simplify things: giving governors the power to contract out management of their schools.

"That's not to say it can't be done in partnership with the LEA," he says. In the long run, he would like to see the contracted companies directly employ teachers. "I'm not saying you should privatise the whole of education," he says. "We need a range of models existing side by side."

How does Kevin McNeany spend his millions? "Ah," he sighs, "I've got an awful lot on paper (shares worth more than pound;14m this week) but not much cash." He lives modestly in Stockport with his teenage son (the other is grown up). There are no villas in Tuscany or the South of France.

"I'm interested in fell-walking - not fast yachts or fast women," he confesses.

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