A glance at Britain's super-rich shows the route to the top doesn't have to be a traditional one

Their school reports didn't make for inspiring reading. Stewart Milne "couldn't leave school quickly enough", John Lancaster thought he was "a failure and left school with no qualifications", and John Caudwell quit school to sweep pottery floors. The combined wealth of these men now exceeds £1.5bn and each of them appears in the new Vocational Rich List.

Their school reports didn't make for inspiring reading. Stewart Milne "couldn't leave school quickly enough", John Lancaster thought he was "a failure and left school with no qualifications", and John Caudwell quit school to sweep pottery floors. The combined wealth of these men now exceeds £1.5bn and each of them appears in the new Vocational Rich List.

Phillip Beresford compiled the list, which ranks wealth by those who built their fortunes on a vocational qualification or apprenticeship. Beresford, who produces the annual Rich List for The Sunday Times, explained that it shows how, "in 21st-century Britain, you do not need a university education to make lots of money, despite what the Government says. This is an attempt to bridge the great British divide about education, class and money."

The lowest-ranking entrepreneur on the list, at No 25, in many ways has the most impressive story. Charan Gill is the director of Harlequin Leisure, Europe's largest independent chain of Indian restaurants, and he arrived in Glasgow from the Punjab when he was nine. His first job was an apprenticeship with the shipbuilder Yarrow and despite never having been in higher education, he still learnt the skills that were necessary to create a business empire worth more than £15m. "University education can sometimes be helpful and sometimes hinder," reflects Gill. "University conditioning tells you what's right, what's wrong, what's possible and what's impossible. I try to think beyond any limits."

Gill speaks with the modesty you would expect from a man who places such importance on family values and ethical business dealings. "I was in a very fortunate position with my grandfather, who'd served in the British army and gained a lot of life experience that way. I remember him telling us stories when I was as young as seven, and he drummed into us that financial security makes a big difference in life."

Cooking has also been good to Jamie Oliver, No 18 on the list and proud that his only formal qualification is a City & Guilds in Catering. His personal wealth is now estimated at £20m. A fellow celebrity chef, Gary Rhodes, who also started with a City & Guilds qualification, is likely to enter next year's list with his growing £6m fortune.

Hairdresser John Frieda started with the trendy heads of clients in the Mayfair salon of legendary hair stylist Leonard, a coiffeur guru in London during the Seventies. Frieda began his styling career when he was 17, before going into a partnership with fellow trainee Nicky Clarke. Frieda's £167m fortune stems from his hair products, with the popular Frizz Ease range selling one bottle every 30 seconds throughout America.

Although there is money to be made with Oliver's kitchen knives, Gill's curry and Frieda's thinning scissors, the ultimate treasure trove lies in mobile phones. John Caudwell ranks first in the list for the second year running, with a fortune of £1.3bn. Caudwell left school soon after entering the sixth form in 1969. His first jobs included working as a nightclub bouncer and working as a labourer at a steel factory, but he received his most valuable education when he was employed as an engineering apprentice at the Michelin Tyre Company in Stoke. He eventually became a successful car dealer but his commercial genius was best applied to the mobile-phone industry while it was still in its embryonic stages. Caudwell founded his first company in 1986, creating Midland Mobile Phones, with his brother. His Singlepoint customer billing operation was sold to Vodafone in August 2003 for £405m.

Caudwell recommends vocational qualifications to the next generation of entrepreneurs. "If you want to be a professional, then you should get a degree, but if you want to be a businessman, go selling and start learning on the shop floor."

These views are pleasing to Chris Humphries, the director general of City & Guilds and the man who commissioned the Vocational Rich List. "I don't think there's any public doubt that a degree helps you go places," says Humphries, "but we were concerned that there is a belief that if you don't have a degree you can't make it. That's the myth we want to challenge."

City & Guilds is the UK's leading award body for vocational qualifications and apprenticeships. Humphries is keen to encourage young people to do an apprenticeship, pointing out that it is a very valid educational path. "This message is very much targeted at young people and parents, saying that if you think that educational training is the only way forward, then think again. Vocational training is no barrier to success."

Watford hairdresser Phil Alexandrou takes inspiration from the publication of the Vocational Rich List, particularly the success of Frieda. "It's really good what he's done," said Phil, 26, who did a City & Guilds hairdressing course at Cassio College in Watford. "I think what Frieda has done in the business is terrific. It shows what can be achieved."

Alexandrou is currently working as manager at the high street branch of the hairdressers Headhunters, having completed an apprenticeship with his father who is a barber. "The whole thing with hairdressing is that it comes from experience. It is all hands on. An apprenticeship is the only way."

WHERE THE VOCATIONAL TOP 10 MADE THEIR MONEY

1 John Caudwell, 52 Mobile phones, £1.3bn

2 Trevor Hemmings (left), 69 Gaming & leisure, £700m

3 Laurence Graff, 66 Diamonds, £450m

4 Jim McColl, 53 Industry, £330m

5 John Frieda, 53 Hair care, £170m

6 Sir Stan Clarke (left), 71 Property & racecourses, £148m

7 Sir David McMurty (far left), 64 Industry, £148m

8 Stewart Milne, 54 Construction, £132m

9 George Moore (left), 76 Industry, £120m

10 Jack Tordoff, 69 Car sales, £112m

Harlequin Leisure: 0141-576 5123

education@independent.co.uk

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