The man who makes learning pay

Kevin McNeany built a pounds 20m firm on education, writes Fran Abrams
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The Independent Online
KEVIN McNEANY is an entrepreneur. His company has 750 staff, a turnover of pounds 20m last year, and it is growing. His business? Education.

There can be few people in Britain making money out of schools and colleges in quite such a confident manner as Mr McNeany. At a time when the news about independent education is mainly bad and large numbers of institutions are closing, he speaks cheerfully of being able to turn a place round within two years.

Now this businessman is turning his hand to the state sector. He is convinced that his management skills can be used to cure an ailing comprehensive just as easily as a loss-making independent school - and that he can make money in the process.

He also believes he can make money from recent reforms. He already owns 14 nurseries linked to existing independent schools. So why not start attaching them to state schools? There is plenty of interest, he says, from the churches and the grant-maintained sector.

Mr McNeany, who, remarkably, is little-known in the world of education, seems to generate huge quantities of ideas and to pursue them with enormous enthusiasm. Recently he had a chance encounter in a hot tub in Nevada with someone from an American firm which tries to turn round failing state schools. Soon afterwards he was in Maryland looking at how it worked.

"I was thinking, `there is possibly something in it for my company'. It's got to be in the realm of ideas at the moment: there's a difficulty with the legislative framework," he said.

Originally from Co Armagh, he started out as an English teacher in Northern Ireland before moving to Leeds. Within a few years he was working in further education, and 1972 found him in Southport, where he saw an opportunity to make money: summer English-language courses for foreign students. "I had seen it was a growth area and there were hardly any in the North of England. I thought we would get Scandinavians."

In fact he ended up with Italians, and he soon expanded in Blackpool, Chester and Manchester. By 1976, when he took over running the business full-time, there were 11 centres. The early Eighties saw Nord Anglia, the company of which he is founder and chairman, branch out again, buying up a failing prep school in Manchester.

Soon he had a reputation for being able to make a success of poor schools, and his business had an extra strand. By the late Eighties he had built up a string of independent schools including Hull Grammar School, in existence since the 14th century, and Gramercy, in Torbay.

On several occasions he has gone, on the last day of term, into a school which has closed down, bought it from the receivers and had it ready to reopen under new management before the next term. Now he gets calls from schools offering him a fee to close them down: he says he knows how to deal with the staffing, the buildings and so on.

His company even gets paid to take over the running of schools without buying them and without telling the parents. People can be funny about letting the world know they are in trouble, he points out.

All this is done without the benefits of charitable status enjoyed by most independent schools. But when Mr McNeany goes to give advice to others on how to make money in the free market, they rarely like what he tells them.

"We want a fee, for a start," he said. "We tell them to restructure, to take girls if it's boys-only, to retire staff. We would probably recommend what any management consultant would recommend in any business, but we understand schools. Unfortunately there have been a number of schools which rejected our advice, and they are all closed now."

There have been other ventures along the way which have not been such great successes: the travel company and the coach company never made any money, for example, and one of his schools, Wellington, on the Wirral, closed this summer.

Mr McNeany has also turned his attentions to Eastern Europe, opening schools in Prague, Warsaw and Moscow. These are primarily for the staff of Western businesses moving into those areas, but there is intense interest from local people, particularly in Russia.

Moral decency demands that the schools reject children who cannot benefit from them, he believes. "In education you are often dealing with the aspirations of parents rather than the needs of the children. They say they must have an international education for little Sergei, but Sergei may not want it or may not be up to it. We have turned away quite a number," he said.

In this country there are also pastures new to be explored, and all of them seem to involve a further blurring of the already indistinct boundaries between state education and the world of business. The company has between 300 and 400 school inspectors on its books, and it is doing 40 inspections for the Office for Standards in Education in the next two terms. The inspectors also undertake consultancy work and run training courses for state schools. A new agency which will begin offering part-time lecturers to further-education colleges from September already has 2,000 staff on its database.

But perhaps the most radical project on Nord Anglia's books concerns nursery education. Mr McNeany's chain of 14 nursery schools is already one of the biggest in the country, and he sees no reason why it should not expand further. Neither do the Church of England nor the Catholic church, both of which are interested in linking newly-built private nurseries with their Voluntary Aided schools.

By letting him build on their land, using private funding, they will gain a say in what goes on as well as winning a regular supply of pupils for their schools. There is no reason why local authorities could not join in such a venture, Mr McNeany says, but they are reluctant to do so.

Reticence from local and even national government is hardly surprising, but the independent sector also has some doubts about Mr McNeany's approach to education.

Nick Lewis, chairman of the Independent Schools' Bursars Association and bursar of King's School, Canterbury, says there is nothing wrong with bringing sound business practice into education, but making a profit from it is another matter.

"We need every penny that we can generate to reinvest and improve our facilities," he says. "We exist for the benefit of the pupils, and the generation of profit for profit's sake I have great difficulty with."