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29 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

The Presidents Club, David Meller, and the rise of the education philanthropist

Meller’s fall may be an extreme case, but the increasing involvement of businessmen in education raises wider concerns. 

By Freddie Whittaker

The Financial Times exposé on the Presidents Club was full of disturbing details, but one of the biggest shocks for many people was the revelation that David Meller, one of the event’s organisers, was not only the sponsor of an academy trust, but also a member of the Department for Education’s board of directors.

His links with schools made Meller an obvious target for anger in the wake of shocking revelations of sexual harassment by guests at the seedy men-only black tie dinner. A man responsible for the education of children was involved in organising an event where women hired as hostesses were groped and propositioned. His position became untenable the moment the allegations were made.

What happened next happened quickly.

By the morning, MPs were calling for Meller to go, and education ministers were summoned to the House of Commons to answer on his behalf. By the afternoon, he was gone. He resigned from the DfE and took a “leave of absence” from the Meller Educational Trust, the organisation he founded in 2009, and which now runs four schools and a 14 to 19 technical college.

While the initial focus may have been on the contrast between Meller’s day job and his choice of night life, his moment in the headlines is also a reminder of the increasingly close links between education and the world of big business. 

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Outside education, he is chair of his family’s business, the Meller Group, one of the largest luxury home and beauty suppliers in the UK, and has held various roles with a number of organisations – including Watford Football Club.

Between 2011 and 2014, Meller also served as a director at the thinktank Policy Exchange, which was founded by the ex-education secretary Michael Gove. In 2013, Gove appointed Meller to the DfE’s board, and he was subsequently asked to chair the apprenticeship ambassador network, and later the apprenticeship delivery board, which was co-chaired by Nadhim Zahawi, the families and childrens minister who was also in attendence at the Presidents Club event.

According to a Guardian profile, Meller struggled with dyslexia at his comprehensive school, an experience that apparently drove his interest in education. He set up The Harefield Academy in 2005, becoming its lead sponsor and chair of governors. In 2008, he was approached by the Labour government and asked to sponsor a second school – The Bushey Academy – which opened in 2009 after its predecessor, a local authority-maintained school, failed.

It is not unusual for government departments to look to British boardrooms when selecting their non-executive directors. It’s also not unusual for them recruit party supporters and donors – Meller has given £65,000 to the party overall, and even bankrolled Michael Gove’s shortlived leadership campaign.

And though a revelation to many outside education, news of a link between a prominent businessman and the schools sector will not have come as a surprise to many working in schools, where the involvement of rich donors is a growing source of mistrust and unease.

The academies model affords the wealthy many more opportunities to get involved in running schools than they ever had under a fully local authority-maintained system. Donors can now set up and take up board-level positions in academy trusts and some, like Meller, even name the organisations after themselves.

Supporters of the system will argue that their expertise and business acumen can help steer academies through financial difficulties. That may be true in some cases, but it’s not a panacea.

For example, the David Ross Education Trust has received millions of pounds in donations from its founder and namesake, the Carphone Warehouse founder and Conservative donor David Ross, through his charity the David Ross Foundation.

Over the past year, the trust has been dogged by internal disputes. Several leaders, including former education secretary David Blunkett, stood down last March, prompting Ross to install himself as chair. Proposed cuts to support staff jobs precipitated by a difficult financial position have created tension between the trust and its workers.

To add to its woes, the trust was also hit last year by a warning from Ofsted over pupil progress across its schools.

Bright Tribe, a trust set up by the venture capitalist Michael Dwan, found itself in hot water in 2016 over payments made to businesses associated with the trust’s founder.

The trust has more recently been at the centre of a row over its running of the struggling Whitehaven Academy in Cumbria, and is now in discussions with officials about walking away from all of its schools in the north of England.

In other cases, the involvement of wealthy donors in schools has, in the government’s eyes, been more successful, and that success has been rewarded.

Meller may not have got the peerage he reportedly wanted (though he was made a CBE in the new year’s honours), but several other prominent academy sponsors have been elevated to the heart of government.

Venture capitalist and Conservative donor John Nash, who once paid £2m to sponsor a school, was made a Conservative peer in 2013 so he could join Michael Gove’s front bench team as a minister.

Theodore Agnew, who made his money through the outsourcing of work overseas, shelled out tens of thousands to his chain, the much-lauded Inspiration Trust, during his time as its chair.

Last year, Agnew was given a peerage so he could replace Nash as academies minister.

Both Nash and Agnew had also previously served as non-executive directors at the Department, in the same role Meller was forced to quit earlier this week.

Although an extreme case, the Meller scandal sheds light on an important issue: the growing unease in schools and among parents about the involvement of rich businesspeople in the education of children, seen by some as a sign that state schools will one day be run for profit.

The government job now is to find a way to address that unease, and it should do so soon.