I first met Mike Rees-Lee at the beginning of 2019. At the time, he was the Head Teacher of Special School in Torbay run by a private company called Cambian. A school which dealt with 25 of the most vulnerable young people in Devon and whose lives were being changed by the work that he and his dedicated team were doing. That sounds like a great story but stick with me – this gets better.
Cambian is not education provider – it is a Limited Liability Company which engages in business activity in the education sector. In our first conversation, Mike described how the business model work in respect of his school and how tens of thousands of pounds in local authority money ended up with Cambian and its shareholders. As a business model it seemed really sound. Providing expert services in a sector to a local authority with a legal obligation to ensure it makes this provision. The perfect client. However, in terms of being decent in its execution, it is morally reprehensible. The school was encouraged to operate on staff costs of 35% when a typical school often runs closer to 90%. Investment was non-existent and the capacity to employ further specialists to provide better service was denied.
Needless to say, Mike was far from happy. His plan was simple. Offer an excellent provision for special needs education in the area but within a framework which did not necessitate the distribution of profits to third parties. In our earlier conversations, we decided that the best thing to do was lift the business model directly from the existing school and apply Community Interest Company principles to it. By removing the opportunity to distribute funds, Mike was able to build a safety net into the operating model of the new school. One which could potentially lead to solvent operation despite borrowing after less than 5 years. Resonance, a local Social Investment firm saw the potential in Mike’s plan and agreed to stake some of the start-up capital for the venture.
The ensuing months saw Mike and I discuss potential sites, the implications of staff, worries about funding, concerns from the potential client all set against the backdrop of an existing school which had become aware of his plan to open up. Despite their being no legal action against him, Mike was always concerned about how his former employer would react.
By October 2020, a lease had been signed and the cumbersome administrative process of OFSTED loomed into view. Only Christmas and Covid could delay things now. Which it duly did.
Now, more than two years on from my first eye-opening conversation with Mike, at 15.47 on Thursday, February 25th, 2021, I received a four-word text.
“We are a school!”
For some of you, this story will sound familiar. Indeed, I have shared details of Mike’s journey in bringing The Wildings to life before. And while this might seem like a story which celebrates the end of a journey, it is not intended to be. What Mike and his team have achieved is great, but the real work lies ahead. They are now charged with changing not only the lives of the small numbers of children and young people who will attend their school, but also with creating a legacy. A legacy which has the potential to change the way that educational support provision for the most vulnerable across the country is delivered. What was simply a solid business model, can become an exemplary educational model with great value for the local authority, excellent terms for the people who deliver it and most importantly, a sense that profit can have a real purpose by building more such schools and widening the impact for many thousands more young people and their families.
This is social enterprise in action. This is the work that we support.