Theodore Agnew – from 11-plus misery and brothel cleaning to business success and a top job at Department for Education
09:21 09 August 2013
Archant Norfolk © 2013
He may be the most influential Norfolk man you have barely heard of. Education correspondent Martin George meets Theodore Agnew, who has a key role driving education policy in the county and the country.
For someone who failed his 11-plus and butchered sheep and cleaned brothels in Australia, Theodore Agnew has come a long way to become a multi-millionaire with a key role driving education policy in both the county and the country.
His father came to Norfolk in 1947 when he inherited a family farm in Oulton, near Aylsham, and young Theodore took the 11-plus while a student at the independent Beeston Hall school on the north Norfolk coast.
It was a formative experience.
“Even though I had a good education, I still failed the 11-plus. I remember it clearly. I can still remember the moment I was told I had failed. I can remember where I was standing, and the time of day. I do remember very clearly feeling ‘Well, what does that mean for me? I’m a second class citizen from this day’.
“That’s why I don’t believe in grammar schools. I think that you develop mentally at different speeds. I don’t think I’m thick – I don’t think I’m a brain box, but I think my brain just developed a year or two later than was expected by the system.”
He had an unhappy time at Rugby School, where he said he was left to sink or swim because he excelled neither academically nor at sports.
He left the 1970s Britain of industrial conflict and economic woe, first for Canada, and then Australia, where he arrived aged 17. He worked as a jackaroo, mustering cattle on horseback, and learned the art of butchering sheep with a chainsaw.
He talks today of his fears that the X-Factor generation thinks success can come overnight – something that did not happen during his decade down under.
He made his first move into the world of business when he bought a carpet and general cleaning business in Sydney.
“I did not realise when I bought it that it was about 90pc cleaning and 10pc carpet cleaning.
“Most of the time it was cleaning flats in King’s Cross that had been used as brothels.
“The squalor and filth was indescribable”, he said.
He sold the company after two years, and other ventures included selling life insurance, repossessing TVs for a debt collection agency, brokering mortgages and buying a neon sign manufacturing business.
In 1988 he returned to Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, but found himself “unqualified and unemployable, really, so I had to create a business myself”.
The field he chose was business process outsourcing, and started his company, Town & Country Assistance, in a barn near Halesworth, Suffolk, before moving to Ipswich.
By 2000 the company employed about 150 people, but Mr Agnew said he was frustrated with the level of numeracy and literacy skills, and decided on a radical solution. He became a pioneer of outsourcing to India.
The thought that he was paying £1,000 a month for people will low skills in Ipswich, compared to £70 a month to maths graduates in India, sparked his passion for education reform.
“That’s when the penny dropped that if we did not improve the education quality of our kids they were competing against much better qualified people who were paid a fraction of the cost,” he said.
“What I was doing became more ubiquitous.
“The range of tasks which can move if we are not capable of producing a workforce here to do it is almost unlimited.
“The only jobs you are left with are about 20pc of jobs in the workforce. It was absolutely fundamental to me.
“I could see that if we could not bring our own workforce up to the same level as the emerging countries then we had no chance of maintaining living standards for the next generation.”
He funded research by the free market think tank Policy Exchange which supported a pupil premium, which would give schools money for disadvantaged pupils, and aimed to give them an incentive to take poorer students.
The premium quickly became a flagship policy of the coalition government.
He also worked closely with Michael Gove ahead of the 2010 election to flesh out Conservative education proposals, and afterwards joined the board of the Department for Education, which provides strategic leadership.
Earlier this year he became chairman of its Academies Board.
He said: “My job is to try to ensure the educational standards in the academies are increasing – because that’s the whole point of it – and then to have enough sponsors to take on schools that need them, and that the sponsors have the capacity to take them on.”
So far he has paused the growth of some of the big national academy chains, and doubled the number of academy sponsors, but says another 100 are still needed.
But as well as being a key player on the national education scene, Mr Agnew also provides the drive and money behind some of the most high-profile developments in Norfolk.
He believes academy sponsors should be local to the schools they support, so when he decided to become a sponsor himself he asked officials to look for a school in Norfolk that needed help. They suggested Greenacre Primary, in Great Yarmouth, which in 2011 was named the country’s 19th worst primary school.
He has given a commitment to give the school – which reopened as the Great Yarmouth Primary Academy last September – £50,000 a year for five years, and he speaks at assemblies, presents awards for reading and has come to Saturday school with his own son to help with reading.
“They are just family things, but it’s the difference of the personal touch that the local authority can’t do.
“You can’t get a large institution to act in a personal way like that”, he said.
He also set up the Inspiration Trust, a sponsor of Norfolk academies which has signed up a handful of secondary schools in recent months, and recruited Rachel de Souza, headteacher of Victory Academy in Norwich, to become chief executive.
He added: “I have always had a restless personality. I’m not someone who likes to get into a rut.
“I enjoy the challenge of being in different places and learning about different things.
“My own personal belief is
that one should be responsible for one’s own destiny as much as possible because if you are not then someone else will be, and they won’t look after your own interests as well as you.”