Introducing... Lord Agnew

Jess Staufenberg has closely followed Lord Agnew’s career in the schools sector, where his reputation divides opinion. As he settles into his new remit as minister for the further education market, she sets out what his appointment might mean for the sector.

It’s fair to say Lord Agnew, or rather Theodore Agnew, Baron of Oulton, is rather like Marmite.

On the one hand, he has got right up school leaders’ noses with his flippant comments about savings.

On the other, some admire him for his tough talk and several of his policy stances.

So who is the new minister for the further education provider market, and what can the sector expect of him?

“College principals may take comfort that Agnew’s bark is worse than his bite”

Agnew’s gung-ho approach to school savings has prompted much irritation among academy leaders – and is likely to do the same with many college bosses.

In November last year he exuberantly claimed he is “like a pig hunting for truffles” when finding savings in the education system, and that he can “wager a bottle of champagne” he will find some in every school.

Aside from the annoying reference to expensive foodstuffs, this claim outraged education leaders all the more, firstly because it came from a wealthy venture capitalist rather than an experienced educator, and secondly because evidence shows that school funding has dropped in real terms over the past decade.

And if it’s been bad for schools, it’s been worse for colleges: the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed last year that further education has been the “biggest loser” in education funding cuts.

A £400 million spending boost and extra £120 million for Institutes of Technology have been welcomed by the sector, but many college heads are clear that more money is needed.

So it’s likely that references to truffles and champagne will not go down well in FE if Agnew continues in the same vein in his new role.

He has since claimed his words were “taken out of context” – but he remains a tough talker, and on Friday warned in these pages that he will personally be making sure colleges “curb excessive costs” and that “investment is not wasted”.

In academies, his army of school resource management advisers (SRMAs) – or cost-cutting consultants – have been executing this mission, though not always with a good reception.

FE Week’s sister paper Schools Week greatly irritated Agnew by revealing some SRMA reports were advising schools to cut down on lunch portions and replace experienced teachers with support staff.

An expansion of the scheme is on the cards.

For the moment, the FE sector is not in their remit. 

A bark worse than his bite

But college staff may have more sympathy with Agnew for his pet peeve – excessive senior pay.

In the colleges sector, as in the academies sector, there has been outrage at the amount some college principals are taking home, with the University and College Union blasting them as “greedy and hopelessly out of touch” in April last year, after a third enjoyed a pay rise of more than 10 per cent in 2016-17.

Agnew warns in his FE Week piece that where senior staff salaries are too high, he will “not hesitate to step in”.

So, be warned.

Or perhaps not?

College principals may take comfort (and underpaid lecturers groan) that Agnew’s bark is, frustratingly for him, worse than his bite.

We know from Schools Week that despite the Education and Skills Funding Agency sending out more than 200 letters to academy trusts demanding they justify big salaries paid to bosses, they didn’t have much impact.

Nearly half of the trusts to get letters actually paid their chief executives more last year – and the Department for Education was powerless to intervene.

The equivalent pressure on colleges is the Association of Colleges’ controversial senior pay code, which colleges are being asked to follow.

The voluntary guidance suggests giving seniors pay rise only if all staff receive one, removing top college bosses from remuneration committees, and publishing principal salaries separately.

But again, it’s all voluntary.

It’s fair to say Lord Agnew, or rather Theodore Agnew, Baron of Oulton, is rather like Marmite

So it is not clear exactly what Agnew means when he says he will “step in”.

Take, for instance, Judith Doyle, principal at Gateshead College.

Her salary moved from a minimum of £240,000 in 2017 to £340,000 in 2018.

Asked to justify this, the college said “executive pay is decided by the remuneration committee following thorough due process and procedure” and that “individual and organisational performance” is considered.

The college added that “the published accounts take into account an accrual for a remuneration scheme payable in respect of a three-year period.”

FE Week understands this means Doyle was owed money from the previous three years, which was paid in one lump sum last year.

It was not explained what money she was owed or why.

The college has told FE Week her salary this year is £252,000.

It is a reduction from last year, but hardly a model of pay restraint.

And following the departure of three principals who last year were paid more, it is now likely to be the sector’s highest in 2019.

The anger around these big packages was also demonstrated when Sir Ian Diamond was appointed to lead the Commission for the College of the Future, with critics pointing out the ex-Aberdeen University boss’s £280,000 payout is still being probed by finance bosses.

So can Agnew really bring down salaries? It would appear difficult. In which case, he has a tricky job: he risks irritating the FE sector by talking endlessly of savings, when most experts agree a serious funding injection for colleges is well overdue.

Yet where he could win over staff – by cutting senior pay – he is rather emasculated.

A hands-on politician

To return to the Marmite analogy, some like Agnew because he is pretty outspoken.

He is also a doer, so don’t underestimate him yet.

After all, he’s only had his FE brief for a couple of weeks and has already ordered the FE Commissioner to investigate the credit card expenses of Stella Mbubaegbu, principal at Highbury College in Portsmouth, which were revealed after FE Week’s year-long freedom of information battle with the college.

Agnew also told this paper he is “carefully monitoring” an independent investigation into alleged mismanagement of funds at Hull College Group.

Agnew is outspoken in other ways, too.

Brought up in Norfolk and privately educated at Rugby, he revealed to local press in 2013 he opposes grammar schools because failing the 11+ himself made him feel like a “second-class citizen”.

He’s also vowed to crack down on schools using “monopoly suppliers” for school uniforms, claiming it is a “pernicious way of excluding children from less well-off backgrounds”, and has pledged to look at academy whistleblowing procedures.

Agnew was there when inspection exemptions for “outstanding” colleges and schools were stripped away – undoing one of Michael Gove’s worst legacies – and is a vocal backer of greater exclusions accountability.

So even if he can’t do all he likes with colleges, he will do what he can.

Councils at this moment may be trembling at Agnew’s proposed “accountability matrix” to show how academies are different (read: “better”) from local authority schools.

He and the DfE are also going after local authority schools by requesting they publish their annual finances on their website.

Could all this be coming the way of FE?

There’s a reason he has been described as the man who “wants to chair every academy trust in England”.

Yet Agnew, formerly a trustee at influential think tanks Policy Exchange and Education Policy Institute, has one serious weak spot – the accusation that he represents a biased system, and doesn’t always play fair.

 This has a long history: there were rumblings of discontent when he received his knighthood in 2015, given he had donated £134,000 to the Conservative Party between 2007 and 2009.

The Norfolk-based academy trust he founded in 2012, Inspiration Trust, was dogged by accusations of “special treatment” by the DfE because of its links to him, ranging from undue influence with Ofsted to not being required to publish important documents.

Even if he can’t do all he likes, he will do what he can

He finally stepped down as a director in summer 2018, but keeping certain documents under wraps still seems to be a habit.

An investigation launched three years ago into the  epic collapse of Lilac Sky Schools Academy Trust has still not been published, even though Agnew keeps banging on about “unprecedented levels of accountability and transparency”.

He promised in April this year that 70 reports by his SRMAs would be published in the next few months, but they haven’t appeared.

And Agnew refused MP requests to disclose any details of a £16 million turnaround plan for the large Academies Enterprise Trust.

He also wrote to academy trust auditors telling them a “simple way to avoid failings going on to the public record is through midyear audit reviews”.

So much for total transparency.

So like him or loathe him, the message on Agnew is clear.

Better get in his good books quick.