Millionaire jailed in fraud scandal leads school fundraising mission

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gerald Ronson, the entrepreneur who brought self-service petrol stations to the UK and was caught up in the infamous Guinness fraud scandal, is leading a 10m fundraising drive for a new Jewish secondary school in north London.

The Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS), which is expected to open in September 2010, will be the first in the UK to give equal recognition to all children of Jewish parents, including the children of mixed marriages. It will teach Judaism as part of the national curriculum, but also promises to encourage its pupils to be "outward looking".

Ben Rich, a spokesman for JCoSS, said: "The object is to create quite a different sort of faith-based school. Parents like faith-based schools because of the discipline and moral ethos, but there are obvious, understandable concerns about faith-based schools. We expect to be oversubscribed."

Mr Ronson has written to potential donors promoting the idea that the school could draw "lost" Jews back to the Jewish community. He said: "By focusing on excellence, JCoSS will lead parents who want to send their children to a first-rate school to rediscover their Jewish roots. What better way to reach out to those who might otherwise be lost to Judaism?"

The school has planning permission, and has attracted 36m in government grants. The remainder of the estimated 50m is to be raised privately. There will be 1,310 places. More than 1,000 parents have registered an interest already.

Mr Ronson, 68, is a self-made multimillionaire who left school at 15 to join the family's furniture business. In 1966, he opened a string of self-service petrol stations selling their own brand. He named his company, Heron, after his father, Henry E Ronson. In 1968, he sold his 30 Heron stations to Shell, and moved into property dealing. By the 1980s, Heron International was one of the UK's largest companies. The business almost collapsed with debts of 2.4bn but, on his release from jail, Mr Ronson rebuilt it with the backing of Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and others.

But his name will always be associated with the Guinness share dealing scandal, when the company secretly propped up its own share price while it was negotiating to take over the drinks company Distillers. In 1986, an inquiry into the deal resulted in jail sentences for four businessmen, including Mr Ronson, who was fined 5m and served half of a one-year prison term. The court was told that companies in the Heron group were promised 5m if the takeover deal was secured, in return for which Mr Ronson bought 25m-worth of Guinness shares at a sensitive time in negotiations.