A multimillionaire Tory donor is being lined up by Michael Gove to chair the body charged with maintaining and raising standards in England’s schools.
David Ross, a co-founder of the Carphone Warehouse high street chain, is believed to be the front runner for the post after the Education Secretary in effect sacked the previous incumbent, Baroness Morgan.
But the move will be deeply controversial because, as well as being a Tory donor, Mr Ross is the founder of a chain of 25 academies – for which Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, has responsibility.
“What will happen when inspectors are sent into his own schools?” one teachers’ leader asked. Any attempt to appoint Mr Ross would ignite a fierce row within the Coalition as Mr Gove’s deputy, the Liberal Democrat schools minister David Laws, has made it clear he expects the appointment to be non-political.
Mr Ross, who has given the Conservative Party around £220,000, belongs to an elite diners’ club whose members get frequent access to David Cameron in exchange for donating more than £50,000 a year.
His appointment to an independent quango would raise further questions about the party’s ties to wealthy individuals, following the revelation that the wife of a Russian banker paid £160,000 to play tennis with Mr Cameron and Boris Johnson at the party’s summer fundraising ball on Wednesday. Baroness Morgan, whose expulsion from her Ofsted role was revealed this year by The Independent, was widely considered to have proved an impartial executive despite having run Tony Blair’s office when he was Prime Minister.
“Sally Morgan has been able to rise above party politics and command cross-party support – it’s crucial the next person is able to do the same,” a Liberal Democrat source said.
Mr Laws indicated that he believed the decision not to re-appoint Baroness Morgan was a sign that the Ofsted inspectorate, which is officially independent of government control, was being damaged by political interference.
Mr Ross, who is estimated by the Sunday Times “rich list” to be worth £892m a year, co-founded Carphone Warehouse in the 1980s with Charles (now Sir Charles) Dunstone, a friend from his school days.
Sir Charles maintained his links with the firm while Mr Ross ceased to be joint-chief operating officer after 2003 – becoming deputy chairman and then non-executive director. He resigned in December of that year over the mortgaging of some of his shares in the retail business, but was cleared of impropriety over the issue by City regulators.
Four years ago, he was involved in a bizarre situation when an escort girl, Sniezana Kobeniak, alleged she had been bruised in a scuffle after being turned away from his London home. She said she had been booked for a £250 one-hour appointment for which she had not been paid.
Ms Kobeniak withdrew her allegation after Mr Ross was interviewed under caution and there is no suggestion of impropriety on his part.
Mr Ross’s involvement with education began with the setting up of the Education Trust– whose first school, Havelock academy, opened in Grimsby in 2007. His network now has 25 schools which, it is estimated, educate nearly 8,500 children in primary and secondary schools.
In the selection process to replace Baroness Morgan, it was suggested that one leading candidate could be another Conservative party donor, Theodore Agnew – who sits on the board of the Department for Education and also has sponsorship links with academies.
In ruling himself out last month, Mr Agnew appeared to concede that the post should not go to a divisive or partisan figure. “It should not be a politically moti vated appointment,” he said. “It should be a post that is supported by all the political parties. It’s a very important role and if it had not been considered controversial I would have applied for it.”
Mr Gove has previously said no candidate “should be ruled out on the grounds of political allegiance”. The Tories are understood to want the new Ofsted chairman to have both business and education experience, which means that the field of ideal candidates is fairly small.
A spokeswoman for the DfE said: “The recruitment process for the new chair of Ofsted is ongoing. The successful candidate will be announced in due course.
“As with all public appointments, the appointment process is being conducted in accordance with the requirements set by the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the guidance issued by the Cabinet Office Public Appointments Unit.
“An independent panel decides who is long-listed, short-listed and interviewed. After this process is complete, they recommend to ministers a list of suitable candidates.”
Margaret Morrissey, of the parents’ pressure group Parents Outloud, said: “It doesn’t sound quite right.
“I don’t know the man – he may be very worthy – but I do think that when those in power consider doing things like this they put themselves in an invidious position. He may be a brilliant entrepreneur – but that doesn’t obviously give him a great insight into inspecting a school.”
She added that she was worried about a potential conflict of interest over the academy chains.