JN and Theo

Matthew Bennett

Last Thursday, a leaked Department for Education memo was published. Written in October 2013 by Dominic Cummings, one of Michael Gove’s special advisers, it expressed ‘serious concerns’ about the performance of Ofsted and its chief inspector, Michael Wilshaw: ‘No element of human life that works well – e.g. Silicon Valley – works on an Ofsted basis.'

Wilshaw was quick to respond, calling the memo a reminder of the ‘plots and smear campaigns’ launched against him by Gove’s people earlier this year. His statement was the usual mixture of management-speak and sub-Churchillian bombast: ‘I will not be swayed from making the difficult decisions that are sometimes necessary to raise standards in our country. Nor will I be deterred from shining a spotlight on poor performance, whether in academy chains, free schools or local authority schools.’ Some of Ofsted’s judgments on academies and free schools have been embarrassing for the DfE. There is an ongoing battle over Ofsted’s right to inspect the new ‘chains’ of academies.

Cummings’s memo refers twice to ‘JN and Theo’, who are said to be ‘increasingly alarmed’ and ‘very concerned’. John Nash is the cofounder of Sovereign Capital, a private equity firm with interests in healthcare and education. Theodore Agnew is the founder of Somerton Capital LLP. In the dying days of New Labour, both men discovered they had a passion for reforming state education. They set up charities that enabled them to become sponsors of academies. Nash’s Future now oversees a chain of four academies. Agnew’s Inspiration Trust controls six schools and a sixth form college in Norfolk.

At the end of 2010, Nash and Agnew were appointed as non-executive members of the DfE Board, to help the department ‘be run in the most effective and business-like way, by drawing on the experience of what works outside government’. In January 2013, Nash – who with his wife has donated almost £300,000 to the Conservative Party – was given a peerage and appointed schools secretary. He left Sovereign Capital. Soon afterwards, another leaked DfE document proposed ‘reclassifying academies to the private sector’. In February this year Gove tried to make Agnew the chair of Ofsted, but the Lib Dems kicked up a fuss and he instead became chair of the new Academies Board.

Cummings left the DfE at the end of 2013. A few months later, Gove was gone. Nash and Agnew are still there. Last month, the new education secretary, Nicky Morgan, was asked by the TES about the possibility of for-profit companies taking over academies. She said it was 'something I’m happy to have lots of further advice and e-mails on. I suspect that most people may not be very keen on it, but it’s something... well, you’d have to think very carefully.’ Shortly afterwards, it was reported that the Academies Enterprise Trust, one of the largest chains, was planning to outsource all non-teaching posts in its 77 schools to a profit-making organisation. In the education investment community, this is known as ‘chore, not core’.

JN and Theo have big plans. And they don’t want Wilshaw messing things up.


  • 13 October 2014 at 10:24pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Right off the bat D. Cumming’s selection of Silicon Valley as a “system” that works well should be assailed. It works for multimillionaire owners and investors and for middle-class consumers of stylish (but mostly time-wasting) products that they wish to have as cheaply as possible. To make the latter wish come true the Valley guts the U.S. economy, exports jobs to harassed wage-slaves in Asia, dodges taxes in any and all jurisdictions, and is generally a collective bad citizen. In other words, for nations and the bulk of their citizens, it doesn’t work all that well, requiring much more national regulation -- here the Germans are coming on strong, and I wish them well. (I can hear the phony shriek of despair that this will stifle innovation, but, of course, more regulated and properly taxed monopolistic giants and start-ups in the “info-biz” will continue to operate with entirely respectable profits if and when the most powerful governments decide to regulate them in rational fashion). Where will they go if they can’t stand the heat? The moon? Perhaps Cummings has a “lunar perspective” on this.

  • 14 October 2014 at 4:14pm
    mototom says:
    I was glad to see Cummings going.