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Ark, formerly known as Absolute Return for Kids is a charity set up by a group of hedge fund managers in 2002.

It operates as a schools operator in the UK - it runs a chain of academy schools. Like charter schools in the US, academies and free schools in the UK are schools that are privately operated but publicly funded, but which also receive funding from private donors. Ark also provides teacher training and school leadership programmes.

Ark also 'supports government to reform education systems'. It is an influential player in education reform circles, particularly in the UK and increasingly in certain developing countries. It uses business methods to try and improve schools, with a focus on public private partnerships; workforce reform programmes; and education technology.

Among its co-founders are Paul Marshall, lead non-exec director at the Department for Education and Ian Wace of Marshall Wace and Arpad Busson of EIM Group.

Ark Schools

UK schools

Ark runs a chain of 35 state-funded academy schools (primary and secondary) in the UK (in Birmingham, Hastings, Portsmouth, with a majority in London), some being new schools, others were taken over by Ark. Its ambition is to have around 50 schools by 2017 in regional clusters. Academy schools are state-funded schools that are removed from Local Authority control, funded directly by central government, and independently-run.

Ark is one of the largest school chains in the UK. In 2016 it was described as one of 11 ‘system leader’ academy chains in England.[1]

Schools around the world

As well as the UK, ARK also runs schools in India and since 2012, Africa. It is increasingly focused on setting up networks of schools and on ventures that can support them.

Uganda and Zambia

Since 2011 ARK has partnered with PEAS, (Promoting Equality in African Schools) an organisation running secondary schools in rural Uganda and Zambia. As of 2014, PEAS ran 24 schools. As well as opening and running schools, ARK has also worked with PEAS on tools to track student and teacher attendance and record demographic data.


ARK plans to open a network of low-cost private primary schools across nine states in India.

ARK is also piloting a voucher scheme intended to improve access of the poorest families to private schools in Delhi.

It has also piloted a school inspection programme, in collaboration with Ofsted, DfID, CfBT and M-CRIL, which uses tools to automate the inspection process and make it easier to analyse school data. It was adopted by the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in 2014. ARK is working with the authorities in Delhi to do the same.

ARK also sells English language programs to schools in India, based on phonics, songs and computer games that include teacher training, which are designed to evolve how they teach (away from lecturing and rote learning and towards more interactive, communicative approaches).[2]

Lobbying for education reform

Ark supports education reform, or privatisation, initiatives around the world.[3] It does this in a number of ways:

Accelerating privatisation around the world

Ark, as a schools operator, is a beneficiary of the public private partnership (PPP) approach to public sector reform in the UK. PPP is a form of privatisation.

Ark also lobbies for privatisation around the world.

The key vehicle for Ark's PPP work is its Education Partnership Group.

Formerly called the 'Public Private Partnerships Practice', the Education Partnership Group is an 'accelerator' for school privatisation in developing countries. It says it works with national and sub-national governments 'to create and regulate [non-state school] providers at a cost that matches the per child expenditure by government in public schools.'[4]

It does this by:

  • generating evidence and interest for public private partnerships
  • understanding and shaping government agendas (aka lobbying)
  • launching pilots
  • 'supporting implementation at scale'
  • leading global reform on public private partnerships.[5]

For example, the Group has piloted the use of school information management systems, which it says can lead to school improvement. Working with SIS tools, such as SchoolTool created by Ubuntu founder, Mark Shuttleworth, it has conducted a series of pilots to test the use of attendance and assessment data in different country contexts (e.g. rural Uganda, Sierra Leone, India, and South Africa). It is now 'scaling up' this work with governments and 'school network partners'. According to Ark, this will lead to 'business development opportunities' and allow it to build its reputation by 'engaging with edtech globally.'[6]

The Group launched its first privately-managed government-funded schools in Nairobi, New Delhi, and the Western Cape. Ark is also working with the Ugandan government to help develop public-private partnerships for privately-run, state-funded secondary schools.[7] It now has what it calls 'active engagements' in:

  • South Africa
  • Uganda
  • Liberia
  • Sierra Leone
  • Kenya
  • India

and a 'strong pipeline in other geographies in Africa, Asia and Latin America'.[8]

Ark has also partnered with an Indian-registered organisation called The Education Alliance, ( Its main goals are similarly to: collate and disseminate evidence on PPPs; shape PPP policies; stimulate the school operator pipeline; ensure quality education in PPP schools; assist private operators in securing viability gap funding.[9]

The Group is being supported by a team from Sir Michael Barber's Education Delivery Institute (EDI), who are described as having 'deep knowledge and experience with operationalising school reform and change'.

Ark's PPP Group is supported by a $2,367,000 grant (running from Mar 2015 – Feb 2018). Funders include:

as well as Ark itself.

Lobbying for changes to the workforce

Ark has initiated a number of training programmes for school leaders and teachers to effect system-wide reform. In the UK, for example, ARK initiatives span initial teacher training, leadership and headship training.

These programmes are part of the wider 'teacher changemakers movement', initiated by corporate education reformers. The justification for such programmes is that 'teachers and principals are uniquely placed to lead change in the education system', as ARK-funded STIR (below) says. Many in the education reform movement have identified teachers in particular as the most significant block to their reform efforts. It makes sense from the reformers' perspective, therefore, to replace and reshape the workforce. (See Ark's support for the Chicago-based Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) below, and its 'turnaround' model, which involves replacing a school's entire staff. Ark's director of education pioneered this model at AUSL).

Teacher-led reform programmes ARK is involved in include:

  • Future Leaders Trust: set up by Ark in 2006 to train school leaders to be 'changemakers' in schools the UK. Now a stand-alone venture, Future Leaders is a three year training and development programme that draws on business methods and the leadership model of US charter schools, where school leaders, above all, are 'seen as gifted with the powers to save failing schools by bringing their vision and charisma to bear to raise standards.'[10] Participants are expected to be in a senior leadership position in a challenging school and working towards a headship after four intense years of training. The UK government has also encouraged Future Leaders to look into setting up free schools (the UK equivalent of charter schools), opening up the possibility of a network of Future Leaders schools.
  • Teaching Leaders, set up by Ark in 2008 and aimed at selecting, training, and fast-tracking those who will become 'middle leaders' (department heads, for example) in the UK. Run in partnership with the National College, Teach First and Future Leaders, and partly funded by the Department for Education, Teaching Leaders provides a two-year programme of formal training, coaching and support to provide leadership and management skills for teachers seen as becoming the middle leaders of the future. It trains them on three specific fronts: managing pupil data; holding teachers accountable; and motivating their teams. The £9million of funding from the government in July 2011 allowed Teaching Leaders to expand across the UK. Teaching Leaders also envisages an expanded role in teacher training in the future: many of its partner schools have been designated Teaching Schools, providing local hubs for training new teachers and for the professional development of more experienced staff. Besides government and Ark, Teaching Leaders is supported by Pearson, Bloomberg and law firm Linklaters.
  • Leading Educators: a programme in the US similar to the UK's Teaching Leaders (it 'caught the eye of education reformers in America', notes the Times Educational Supplement). Leading Educators' expansion across the US has been funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and New Schools Venture Fund, and builds on its base in New Orleans established by Jay Altman, ARK's former head of education in London, who also co-founded Teaching Leaders.[11]
  • School Leaders for India; ARK ran for 2 years (2008 and 2009) a leadership training programme in India, based on the Future Leaders model. It trained 25 headteachers in Mumbai and Pune.

Lobbying for changes to what is taught, how and by whom (or what)

ARK's methods and philosophy draw heavily from US charter schools, particularly from the model of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools. 'We model ourselves on the American KIPP schools,' says Paul Marshall. This means a focus on discipline and 'behaviour management' as well as changes to teaching methods and curriculum.

Computers replace teachers

In June 2014, ARK announced plans to open the UK's first “blended learning” school. The Ark Pioneer Academy, a free school, is due to open in London in 2018.

Ark sees the approach in part as a way to 'improve cost efficiency through both staffing and school design efficiencies'.

It has taken inspiration from Rocketship Education, a US charter school operator which uses blended learning to cut teacher numbers but says it reinvests the savings in higher teacher salaries. It means that pupils at the new free school will spend a significant percentage of their school day being taught by computer software packages.[14]

Opening up pupil data to edtech

In January 2015, Ark launched a separate education technology venture, Assembly. It is billed as 'a new cloud-based service to break open the market for start-up education technology companies'. 'The Assembly service will store data from school management information systems (MIS), i.e. pupil data, which companies can then apply to use for the creation of apps with “school improvement at their heart”.[15]

As Schools Week reported: 'Without an MIS link teachers must input data manually, and it isn’t updated in real-time along with other valuable information, such as registers or grades. But with Assembly gathering all the data, it means developers can build apps through the platform – making it much easier to link to the MIS.'[16]

Assembly has support from the UK's 'alternative' teachers’ union, Edapt. Its CEO, John Roberts, said: “Anything we can do to get innovation going and driving forward in the ed tech market is really good.”[17]

Assembly's director is Joshua Perry and it has been developed in partnership with the NEON Foundation with support from Zing.

Links to commercial education technology companies

ARK describes Google, a major player in education technology, as a 'major corporate partner'.

ARK executives also have a financial interest in education technology, which could potentially benefit from ARK schools' shift into online learning. Jennifer Moses, formerly of Goldman Sachs and a founding Trustee of ARK (and the co-founder of ARK's King Solomon Academy), is a partner in Ed-Mentor, a venture capital fund that invests in education technology, which she launched when she moved to San Francisco in 2009. Moses' husband, Ron Beller, also formerly of Goldman Sachs and a board member of ARK in the US, is its co-founder. Ed-Mentor has invested in Gobstopper, a digital reading platform. Both Moses and Beller have also set up a charter school company, Caliber Schools, which has an emphasis on learning through technology. Caliber has received funding from the Silicon Schools Fund, a US foundation that funds 'blended learning' projects in state schools and independently-run state charter schools.[18]

Assessment through big data

Daisy Christodoulou, ARK's research and development manager and Joshua Perry, who oversees ARK's data systems, spoke at the 2015 Digital Education UK conference on ‘How can big data transform education?’. Their talk covered topics, such as, 'how big data can make assessments for learning work' and 'understanding how schools manage data'.

ARK says it is overhauling its data management systems 'to enable us to better track student progress and staff performance'. It also says it developing a new assessment model to track pupils’ progress.

Tracking pupils into employment

At the 2014 London Mayor’s Education Conference, Ark's r&d manager, Daisy Christodoulou suggested that employment and 'destinations' data be used to track progress as, ultimately, the goal of schooling is work-readiness.[19]


ARK's main source of direct funding (apart from central government for its schools) comes from fund-raising activities, in particular its annual gala dinners attended by top financiers and celebrities. Once described as “one of the most ostentatious shows of wealth in London's social calendar”, ARK deliberately lowered the profile of the 2013 fundraising dinner.

ARK’s trustees cover the core costs of the organisation.

ARK says its fundraising team supports trustees (e.g. trustee hosted policy events) and.. ensure that donors are well supported, properly briefed, and engaged in the work they are funding. The team also 'ensures that all donor records are confidential, accurate and capable of being analysed in the most useful way.' It also 'works closely with the Marketing and Communications team to design and deliver a number of donor events ranging from small, focused dinners to larger scale receptions, and field visits.'

Corporate partners

ARK describes the following in 2014 as 'major corporate partners': Bloomberg, Burberry, Google.

Corporate partners declared on its website in 2015:

Philanthropic partners include:

Previous partners of ARK

Political connections

ARK has a great deal of political influence in the UK. Former education secretary Michael Gove was accused of “becoming far too close to a ‘cosy cartel’ and that ARK was wielding influence out of all proportion to its size”. Gove is a strong admirer who has claimed to share their philosophy and methods and has frequently celebrated their success. Other political links include:

  • Paul Marshall, Ark's co-founder is also lead non-exec director at the Department for Education.
  • David Laws, former Liberal Democrat schools minister became an 'international adviser' to Ark in December 2015.
  • Amanda Spielman, former research and development director of ARK schools, now an adviser to it. She was appointed chair of Ofqual, the qualifications regulator, following a recommendation by Michael Gove.
  • Sally Morgan (Baroness Morgan of Huyton) is an adviser to ARK's board, and is former chair of UK schools regulator Ofsted
  • Sir Michael Wilshaw, former director of education of ARK and head of ARK's Mossbourne Academy and hailed a “hero” by Gove, became head of Ofsted, the UK regulatory body for schools inspection.



  • Lucy Heller, CEO; formerly at TSL Education
  • Michael Clark, Director of UK Programmes, Ark Schools; former Junior Partner at McKinsey & Company
  • Susannah Hares, Director, International; formerly at London School of Economics where she set up and directed the Innovation Co-Creation Lab.
  • Brian Sims, director of education. Sims was formerly led a private teacher training program at the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL). AUSL is an independent school operator based in Chicago that controvertially is brought in to 'turnaround' what are deemed failing public schools by overhauling the school's entire staff. Schools in line for an AUSL takeover will 'see the ouster of their staffs — everyone from the principal to the lunchroom worker – at the end of the school year. AUSL will then hire new staff for the schools and train them before reopening in the fall for the same group of students,' writes the Chicago Tribune[20] Schools targeted for this treatment have complained that school budgets have been cut, leading to a fall in standards, and that the money for AUSL should instead be handed back to the schools.[21] The private (not-for-profit) AUSL has also been criticsed for 'high-expulsion rates, frequent teacher-turnover, and unfair funding advantages'[22] ARK describes itself as having a 'similar intake to AUSL'. This involvement of private players in training teachers in urban schools started as an idea developed by former head of Chicago Public Schools (and subsequently arch reformer as US education secretary) Arne Duncan and financier Martin Koldyke.
  • Phil Elks, International Education Manager for Ark. Formerly head of secondary school accountability at the Department for Education.

Former ARK employees

  • Sir Michael Wilshaw, former Director of Education at ARK; current Chief Inspector of Schools in England.
  • Lesley Smith, formerly communications director at ARK (2007-13); current Director Public Policy, UK & Ireland at Amazon. Smith was previously worked on campaigns for Tony Blair. She has been a fellow of the British American Project for 22 years (1993-2015).
  • Jay Altman, a 'pioneer' of charter schools in the US. Altman was appointed director of education at Ark in 2005. Altman was a co-founder of Future Leaders.

Trustees and Board

The following are all trustees and global board members as of April 2017:

Former Ark trustees

US board members as of 2017

Former US trustees


Address: 65 Kingsway, London WC2B 6TD


  1. [ 11 academy trusts now have more than 30 schools and are labelled ‘system leaders’], Schools Week, 30 November 2016
  2. Private Schools for the Poor, Endeva Working Paper, April 2014
  3. Annual Report, 2014, ARK, accessed August 2015
  4. Grant page, Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) website, accessed May 2016
  5. Grant page, Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) website, accessed May 2016
  6. Ark – Education Partnerships Group (pdf), date unknown, accessed May 2016
  7. Carolina Junemann* & Stephen J. Ball ARK and the revolution of state education in England, Education Inquiry, Vol.4 No.3 (2013)
  8. Ark – Education Partnerships Group (pdf), date unknown, accessed May 2016
  9. About, The Education Alliance website, accessed August 2015
  10. Carolina Junemann* & Stephen J. Ball ARK and the revolution of state education in England, Education Inquiry, Vol.4 No.3 (2013)
  11. Bill Gates bankrolls 'reverse Teach First' as English scheme crosses pond, TES, 4 March 2011
  12. Micro-Innovations that raise results, STIR Education, accessed August 2015
  13. Micro-Innovations that raise results, STIR Education, accessed August 2015
  14. Academy plan heralds rise of the machines, TES, 20 June 2014
  15. Ark’s new ‘Assembly’ service seeks to help edu-tech start ups, Schools Week, 22 January 2016
  16. Ark’s new ‘Assembly’ service seeks to help edu-tech start ups, Schools Week, 22 January 2016
  17. Ark’s new ‘Assembly’ service seeks to help edu-tech start ups, Schools Week, 22 January 2016
  18. The Heavy Hitters Behind a Fund Focused on K-12 Blended Learning, Inside Philanthropy, 4 February 2015
  19. How data can help schools face the challenges ahead, Mayor’s Education Conference, 21 November 2014
  20. CPS board approves 3 schools for AUSL takeover, Chicago Tribune, 24 April 2014
  21. CPS board approves 3 schools for AUSL takeover, Chicago Tribune, 24 April 2014
  22. Academy for Urban School Leadership defends 'turnaround' plan, Medill Reports (journalism by students in the graduate program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism), 22 April 2014
  23. Exit the dragon, City AM, 1 February 2017