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Tycoon voices zone qualms

The education tycoon whose shares rose by pound;3.6 million after the Government's announcement that private companies would be invited to run state schools has raised serious concerns about the introduction of education action zones.

Former teacher Kevin McNeany, founder and chairman of Nord Anglia - the only education business listed on the Stock Exchange - told The TES that he feared the introduction of the zones was too rushed.

Mr McNeany said the 20 or so schools in each of the first five zones would be hard-pressed to consider the details of potentially revolutionary links with private partners before the Department for Education and Employment's March 20 bidding deadline. He also argued that the requirement for each zone to raise pound;250,000 a year in private sponsorship was an unnecessary hurdle.

And, raising the stakes even further, Mr McNeany called for all schools in zones to be awarded the money usually paid to local education authorities on their behalf for overheads.

But the businessman lavished praise on New Labour's entrepreneur-friendly approach, and predicted that within three years LEAs would have ceased to exist in their current form, and that private companies would be engaged in long-term partnerships with schools.

Mr McNeany, a diminutive 54-year-old who founded Nord Anglia 25 years ago, was speaking amid a flurry of media attention which had included an invitation to write for the News of the World. He became the most famous education businessman in Britain overnight when Nord Anglia was last week tipped to win one of the first five action zone contracts due to start in September.

Shares in Nord Anglia rocketed from pound;1.94 to pound;2.58 in just a few days, increasing the value of Mr McNeany's 46 per cent shareholding by pound;3.6m in the last week.

But by this week, his staff were grateful that he was soon due to fly to Kiev, where he is establishing the latest independent school in an expanding chain, so that he could escape the media attention.

Mr McNeany said he was already speaking to at least a dozen groups of schools all over Britain about possible action zone bids, but felt the DFEE could have been more organised.

"The March 20 deadline is too soon and the timetable is too tight," he said, speaking in the unpretentious headquarters of his company, in Cheadle, near Stockport.

"It's unrealistic to expect schools and governing bodies to make these very big decisions in so short a time. Not for us though - we can make decisions with alarming speed. But if it was a longer period, I think we would get better-formed partnerships and better-informed governors and headteachers."

And although he said Nord Anglia would take a lead role in seeking private sponsorships for zones in which it was involved, he said raising pound;250,000 a year - for three to five years - was an unwelcome complication for a new scheme.

"There is a genuine desire among blue-chip corporations to contribute funds for educational use," Mr McNeany said. "But I think in the first instance it's an unnecessary hoop they're expecting promoters of these forums to jump through."

He added that LEAs should lose the overheads money paid to them for the schools which entered action zone agreements.

"I can't see any justification for the LEA being able to retain that," he said. "You'd be surprised how innovative we could be with access to that funding."

Those innovations, he said, would include financial and other incentives for teachers.

"We can throw away the teachers' salary scales," he enthused, claiming movement was likely to be up rather than down - but refusing to give details of any potential incentive schemes.

But he was eager to see the action zones being able to "break the stranglehold of local authorities" and pave the way for new educational structures in Britain.

He said he suspected that once the three or five-year zone periods were over there would be no return to local authority control for the schools involved - because they would be too independent, and LEAs would no longer exist in their current form.

"Once a child gets up and walks, there's little point in handing it back to nanny," he chuckled.

Mr McNeany accepts that there is widespread concern about making profits from education, but said attitudes would change. He professed personal disdain for money, saying he did not know he had been paid more than pound;300,000 last year until The TES worked it out.

He said he expected to make "a modest profit" on the zones, although he was hoping that performance-related payments could boost his income.

By welcoming private involvement in schools, Labour was going where the Conservatives had failed to tread, he said. "The Labour Government is both radical and courageous in the way that it is tackling education," he said.

Mr McNeany admitted that "failing" schools would not be the ideal raw material for companies such as Nord Anglia to work with.

Mr McNeany - who said he fell into teaching "like so many teachers" - said the action zone initiative was just one of many developments in the state sector.

His company was also involved in a series of Private Finance Initiative schemes involving the creation and operation of new schools.

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