A ‘right pleb’ who became the left’s bête noire

26th May 2017 at 00:00
As a minister in the Department for Education, Lord Nash could be about to oversee the creation of new grammar schools. He tells Martin George why selection needs to benefit the entire education system

IF YOU wanted to invent a person who personifies everything left-wing activists dislike about the last seven years of education policy, you would be hard pressed to come up with a better figure than Lord Nash.

He is a Conservative Party donor and education venture capitalist who founded an academy chain and, since 2013, has overseen much of our schools system as an unelected minister.

That combination of a businessman running publicly-funded schools has led to predictable concerns. And they were only fuelled by the news that, last year, Nash asked for a private meeting with Shannon May, co-founder of the controversial for-profit organisation Bridge International Academies, to discuss the low-cost model it uses to provide education in the developing world (see bit.ly/MayNash). But Nash is not overly concerned about his bogeyman status.

“I don’t really think about it,” he says. “I mean, it’s obviously nonsense. I don’t waste any time thinking about it.

“For-profit schools in the state sector? I don’t see that being on any party’s political agenda any time in the foreseeable future. It’s just toxic, so I don’t see this happening.”

He says his reasons to get involved in education spring not from Sovereign Capital, the venture capital company he founded which specialises in education and health, but from a much deeper source: his childhood.

His mother died when he was 13, and he was unexpectedly sent to a boarding school in Dorset. He once told a State Boarding Schools’ Association conference that, as a south London boy, he was “regarded as a right pleb”.

“I think when my mum died I went slightly off the rails and was not very well behaved and became quite disengaged with my studies, and I think to start with it was quite challenging at school,” he recalls.

Even as a boy, Nash’s entrepreneurial streak was apparent. He rented out his comics to fellow boarders and even became the school bookmaker – which allowed him to “make out like a bandit” until he was caught, and given a beating.

“I did have a teacher, my head of house, who did not give up on me. I would spend hours in his office. He would call me in on some excuse and we’d talk.

“I probably didn’t work out at the time why we were having these conversations, but he was trying to get me to straighten up and do some work, and eventually he succeeded.” His name was Mike Fletcher, a “tough cookie” who he says enabled him to get into the University of Oxford.

And it was the way that teacher turned Nash’s life around that provided the inspiration that fuelled his journey to Sanctuary Buildings years later.

Since joining the Department for Education (DfE) in 2013, Nash has been one of the key drivers of the academy revolution. Although the government last year dropped plans to force all schools to convert, he told the Commons Education Select Committee in November that the trend towards a 100 per cent academy system was “clear”, and the tipping point could be reached in the next “five or six years” when it was no longer possible to run a dual academy and non-academy system.

And if the Conservatives are re-elected next month, Nash is likely to play a key role in the next big schools transformation. If new grammars are created, it could fall to him to see them through with his free schools hat on.

It’s an issue he says he had not “thought about hugely” until Theresa May raised it, and he dutifully follows his department’s line by saying: “We will be very selective about the circumstances in which these selective schools would happen. We have to have a situation where a rising tide lifts all boats.

“We have to see that there’s going to be benefit for the whole system in creating those schools. I definitely would not go to a system where there’s a binary cliff edge.”

He and his wife, Caroline, founded Future, a charity that supports disadvantaged young people, in 2006. He was also a trustee of the Eastside Young Leaders Academy in east London – a charity that aims to help ethnic minority boys to do well at school. A poster of some of its scholars decorates his eighth floor office at the DfE.

“Everywhere we looked it seemed to come back to schooling. For a lot of young people, schools are the only brick in their lives,” he says. “Their home lives can be quite chaotic.”

At the suggestion of Lord Adonis, the Labour architect of the academies programme, Nash then looked for a school to sponsor, eventually settling on Pimlico School, a London secondary in special measures.

He faced vocal opposition, and at a public meeting Nash remembers “my wife and I got out of our car and we had to walk over Pimlico children in cardboard coffins on the pavement, which was a bit of a shock”.

‘Hooked’ on education

The school became an academy in 2008, and received Ofsted’s “outstanding” grade two years later. “That was quite an experience”, Nash says. “Frankly, nothing in my business life has some close to that. It rather got me more hooked on education and resulted in me making this rather unlikely journey to becoming a minister.”

Future Academies now sponsors a total of five London schools. Nash was a non-executive board member at the DfE for two years before being appointed a minister and joining the House of Lords.

He says he initially resisted Michael Gove’s suggestion he join the government – “You must be joking, why on earth would I want to do that?” – but finally decided that “if at the age of 63, somebody asks you to be a government minister in an area you are passionate about, you’ve just got to do it”.

Despite joining government, he retains his position as a director of the academy trust, provoking concerns about potential conflicts of interest. But last year he told peers there was a “very clear protocol” within the civil service that stopped him being involved in any decisions that could “directly affect the Future Academies trust”.

How does the machinery of government compare to that of the business world?

“Slower, inevitably”, he answers, quoting someone who once told him being in government was like business, but with a shareholders’ annual conference every day. However, Nash clearly believes that schools should learn from the business world.

In March, he urged school leaders to be more willing to let any underperforming employees go, and get teachers to embrace “standardisation” rather than “individuality” in their curriculum content.

His remit at the DfE is wide, taking in academies, school governance, admissions and school capital investment. So, given that he has played a key role in the biggest changes to the education landscape in generations, does he have a vision of what the school system should look like in 30 years – and whether there will eventually be a need for profit in the state sector?

“I don’t, really,” is his initial response, and he just catches himself before musing aloud that maybe he should.

He then mentions more schools joining academy trusts, improving technical education, and, after a pause, continues: “Maybe at some stage in about 30 years, somebody might say one of the ways of bringing some capital into the system would be to have for-profit schools, possibly.

“There’s enough worry about the NHS and privatisation. I just think that’s a long way away. It might happen.”

At this point, a nervous-sounding press officer intervenes with a “too far, yeah”.

Despite his four years at the despatch box in the Lords, when asked whether he thinks of himself as a politician, Nash’s answer is quick and unambiguous: “No.”

The irony is that, with all MPs now fighting to retain their seats, this “non-politician” is the only member of the DfE ministerial team guaranteed to still be in Parliament this time next month.

 

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