Gove. BBC Gove is going but his rotten legacy remains. Photo: BBC

Gove may have gone but the covert privatisation of schools he initiated continues writes Clare Sambrook

Last year when education minister Michael Gove, having dropped in on a food bank, declared that stricken families had their own poor decision-making to blame, that piqued my curiosity about Michael Gove.

Food bank users, he said, had made decisions that left them “not best able to manage their finances”. They needed, not just handouts, but support “to make sure that the right decisions were made”.

Had Gove made the right decisions? Had he managed his finances well? Yes, absolutely, I discovered. He’d decided to accept handouts over and over again. From the taxpayer. From Rupert Murdoch. From fund managers and insurance people. He’d even got his opera tickets for free. And shirts! From Jermyn Street’s New & Lingwood (purveyors of “Relaxed Sophistication”).

Gove’s not always on the take. He’s a giver.

Within months of becoming education secretary in May 2010, Gove had invited to join his department’s board as non-executive directors: one former headteacher, and 

  • Anthony Salz: he’s the star corporate lawyer (formerly of Freshfields) on the board at Rothschild, the bankers;
  • Theodore Agnew: he made his money in insurance; he’s  trustee of right wing think tank Policy Exchange, a big Tory party donor, and trustee of the New Schools Network that got £500,000 of public money to advise anyone who wanted to set up a ‘free school’;
  • John Nash, barrister turned banker turned venture capitalist. He’s a big Tory party donor (£300,000), on the board at private equity fund Sovereign Capital, and ‘sponsor’ of Pimlico Academy.

Their mission? To “drive reform of our education system”. (glossary note: reform = privatisation)

Last year, when Nash was elevated to the Lords, Gove made him schools minister.

At DfE frm top left: Agnew (insurance), O’Neill (Goldman), Nash (private equity), Saltz (Rothschild), Marshall (hedge fund)

At DfE frm top left: Agnew (insurance), O’Neill (Goldman), Nash (private equity), Saltz (Rothschild), Marshall (hedge fund)

Among other Gove non-executive appointees to the (let’s not forget, publicly funded) department for education board is:

  • Paul Marshall, chairman of the hedge fund Marshall Wace. He’s a founding trustee of the ARK School group. 
  • Jim O’Neill, who used to be chairman at Goldman Sachs Asset Management.

Hang on a minute, what are ‘non-executives’ doing on government department ‘boards’? Well, that’s something the Coalition government started, using headhunters to find the right sort of chaps. It’s all part of a “drive to improve governance across Whitehall”, they claim. (Don’t laugh).

Until Gove’s abrupt removal to the whips’ office yesterday, the favoured candidate to be chair of Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, was David Ross, the Carphone Warehouse founder. He’s not a teacher or a schools inspector. He’s a Tory party donor. His David Ross Educational Trust controls a chain of 25 academy schools and has got former schools minister Nick Gibb as a trustee.

That’s Nick Gibb, the MP for Bognor Regis, and former corporate tax adviser at KPMG.

Carphone Warehouse, by the way, (according to Annie Powell here), devised a nifty ‘Tablets for Schools’ scheme, endorsed by Gove, whose department recommends that schools spend 3 per cent of their budget on ICT procurement.

David Ross & ex-partner Shelley with the Camerons (Getty)

David Ross & ex-partner Shelley with the Camerons. Photo: Getty

No fewer than four of Gove’s departmental staff have enjoyed two-year secondments to organisations that sponsor academy schools. (Glossary note: sponsor = control; and come full scale privatisation that will be own). That’s two civil servants at United Learning Trust. (They’re the guys who claimed not to know how much their senior executives were paid). One at REach2 (controlling 30 primary schools in England). And one at . . . The David Ross Educational Trust.

Does the public know what’s going on? David Wolfe QC, who calls his blog on these matters “A Can of Worms”, asks: “what’s it all about – what are these new ‘academies’ and ‘free schools’, ‘UTCs’ and ‘studio schools’?” He says: “All that complexity makes it difficult for people to know their rights when it comes to all these new state-funded independent schools. It is also more difficult for them to enforce those rights.”

‘Academy status’ is being presented to parents, teachers and governors across England as a benign development, a way of taking back control of money being wasted by lazy local authorities. Then, before you can shout “Land Grab!”, schools’ building, land and other assets are handed over to philanthropic-sounding “trusts” with links to private equity and hedge funds.

REAch2′s chief executive & deputy, Steve Lancashire & Cathie Paine met the PM, May 2014

REAch2′s chief executive & deputy, Steve Lancashire & Cathie Paine met the PM, May 2014

That education civil servants are being seconded to serve academy chains popped into the public domain only because Labour MP Andrew Smith asked a Parliamentary question.

He was lucky to get an answer. When Labour MP John Healey asked Gove to list the salaries of the heads of each academy trust (they are ginormous), the minister replied that collating the figures could be done only at “disproportionate cost”.

Who does Gove serve? The taxpayer? Or his other present and future paymasters?

Back in 2004, soon after Gove, a Times newspaper executive, was selected for the safe Tory seat of Surrey Heath, Harper Collins, Rupert Murdoch’s publishing house, handed him an advance to write a book about an obscure eighteenth century politician called Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke.

Ten years on, Gove hasn’t delivered. The Guardian asked whether the advance should be returned. Harper Collins replied that Gove “is still committed to writing a book on Bolingbroke but obviously his ministerial duties come first for now”.

In July 2009, Gove trousered £5,750 for four Times articles that he admitted took him four hours to rattle off. Come August, another £5,750. September, same again. October another £5,750. And again in November. December, same again. 

For the past three years he’s accepted £3000 every year from a Surrey lettings agent. Last year the fund manager Linda Jane Coffin tipped him £2,800, management consultants Copeland Blue another £3,000, Kim Gottlieb gave him £5000. In February, Gove registered a £5,000 wad from advertising mogul Jerry Buhlmann. In March £5,000 from Henry Lumley . . . and so it goes on.  You don’t have to take my word for it. It’s all in the latest edition of the Register of Members’ Interests.

Two months ago the Daily Mail’s proprietor Lord Rothermere treated Gove and his wife (the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine) to a weekend at his Dordogne Chateau. Value: £2,134. The purpose of the trip? ”Leisure”. (Private Eye, who first spotted the Dordogne jolly, reports rumours among Daily Mail executives that their next editor will be . . . Michael Gove.)

Gove helped himself generously to Parliamentary expenses, as The Daily Telegraph revealed: £7,000 in a five month spending spree on his West Kensington house. Much of it spent at Oka, an upmarket interior design company established by Lady Annabel Astor, David Cameron’s mother-in-law. (There was the £750 Loire table, the £331 Chinon armchair, the Manchu cabinet for £493, the pair of elephant lamps for £134.50, the birch Camargue chair, the birdcage coffee table,  the dishwasher, the range cooker, the £702 fridge freezer and a £19.99 Kenwood toaster. Kenwood? That can’t be right!)

But that’s small beer. Gove on the take is nowhere near as worrying as Gove in giving mode.

Michael Gove has left the department for education. Private equity and hedge fund people stalk England’s schools. It’s not over yet. Not by a long way.

Author’s note: Two of the best sources on ‘Academisation’ are Local Schools Network and David Wolfe QC’s blog: A can of worms.

Clare Sambrook

Clare Sambrook, novelist and award-winning investigative journalist, edits the Shine a Light project at OurKingdom, the UK arm of openDemocracy. Clare is a co-founder of End Child Detention Now.