Scandal at Sulivan Primary: the plot thickens

Two councillors involved in the decision to close Sulivan school have some serious questions to answer about personal interests.

Last week Hammersmith and Fulham Council voted to close award-winning Sulivan primary so that a free school can have its land.

Two leading councillors involved in that decision, Nick Botterill, leader of the Council, and Georgie Cooney, cabinet member for education, now have some serious questions to answer about personal interests they may have in closing Sulivan.

The first item on councillor Nick Botterill’s register of interests is a directorship at Active Learning Childcare, a company that runs a chain of nine nurseries in London. There’s also a little bio of him on the company’s website.

One of the nine Active Learning Childcare nurseries is in Fulham – a short walk away from Sulivan Primary. The premises for that nursery are also listed on Botterill’s register of interests as being owned by Active Learning Childcare. A land registry search shows that the registered owner of the property is Active Learning Childcare (Guernsey) Limited, and that the property was bought in 2006 from ‘the Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham’ (Hammersmith and Fulham Council).

Sulivan has a very popular nursery, with 29 children currently on the waiting list. Three and four-year-olds who go to Active Learning Centre nursery, like those who go to Sulivan’s nursery, are entitled to 15 hours free early child care. That money is paid by the government to the nursery provider.

Sulivan, therefore, is a direct competitor to Active Learning Childcare, the Fulham branch of which stands to gain from Sulivan’s closure.

I’ve looked through all published Council minutes relating to Sulivan and, as far as I can see, Botterill has never disclosed his financial interest in relation to the Sulivan decision.

In recent years, Hammersmith and Fulham Council have twice refused to allow Sulivan to expand their nursery intake to match the one and a half form entries in other years (it only has 26 full time equivalent places at the moment).

As Sulivan’s head teacher, Wendy Aldridge, and many others have pointed out, this is a very strange decision for a Council which claims to have long-held concerns about Sulivan being under-subscribed (for the record, Sulivan is actually now 89 per cent full overall and 100 per cent full in nursery and reception which is better than many other primaries in the borough, but that hasn’t stopped the Council from giving under-subscription as the sole reason for closing the school).

If the Council really wanted to help Sulivan attain 100 per cent capacity, it would have granted the nursery extension, because parents whose children attend a nursery at a primary school are more likely to then choose that school for their child.

The refusal to allow Sulivan to expand its nursery provision would have benefitted Active Learning Childcare in two ways: it limited the direct competition posed by Sulivan’s nursery and it helped to provide the pretext for closing Sulivan and replacing it with a secondary school, eliminating that competition altogether.

And now to Councillor Georgie Cooney. When the Council voted last week to close Sulivan, she confirmed that she is good friends with one of the founders of Fulham Boys School, the free school set to take over Sulivan’s site following its closure.

The founder in question is one Arabella Northey. At Monday’s meeting Councillor Cooney said that she was only disclosing her friendship in the interests of transparency and that it was not a material conflict of interest. She did not recuse herself from the meeting and she took part in the vote to close Sulivan Primary.

Cooney’s defence was that, as cabinet member for education, she has “many friendships with people who work in the borough’s schools” and that her friendship with Northey had no bearing on her decision to close Sulivan.

But Cooney appears to be extremely good friends with Northey. A quick Google search shows that Northey joined Cooney for a 6-day-long charity walk in Santiago, Chile, in 2011, raising money for the Irish Cancer Charity in honour of Cooney’s father.

Cooney writes on the page that she is going on the trip with ‘Bella’ (Arabella) and two others, and Arabella Northey’s name appears on the justgiving page next to the following message: “Delighted to be sponsoring my walking companion, for your father anything is worth it.”

Is Cooney similarly close to anyone closely connected to Sulivan?

A site for the school she is founding is not the only way Northey will benefit from the closure of Sulivan. She too has interests in a private nursery, The Zebedee Nursery School, which is also very near to Sulivan Primary. A Companies House search shows that Arabella Northey was, at the time that company filings were last made, company secretary of Zebedee Nursery School Limited.

The decision to close Sulivan has been called before the Council’s Education Scrutiny Committee, which in itself is interesting because that committee has a Tory majority (maybe some Councillors are getting worried about May’s elections).

The scrutiny committee meeting has the power to call and question Councillors. This is the perfect opportunity for Botterill and Cooney to address what are, prima facie, deeply concerning conflicts of interest.

More on Sulivan school

———————————-Update- 20-01-14—————————————-

Nick Botterill, leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, has now responded to the article:

“The reason you have not found anything on our website is because I do not have any interest to declare in relation to Sulivan and New Kings schools.

“You will see that I have declared an interest in the Register of Interests, as I am a director of Active Learning Childcare (Guernsey) Limited (“ALC”), a company which employs c 300 people across 9 sites solely in the UK and also pays all its taxes in the UK. The Guernsey company registration is incidental and is a legacy issue resulting from a previous managing director’s particular circumstances.

“It is correct that ALC did buy a site from Hammersmith & Fulham council. I took no part in that sale or events leading up to that sale owing to the fact that the decision to sell the site was made in 2004 by the previous Labour administration and I was not involved in the decision making process in any way.

“Having made an enquiry, I am advised by council officers that it is correct that Hammersmith & Fulham council twice refused Sulivan’s application to expand their nursery intake and that this was for reasons to do with capital as opposed to revenue funding. These were officer decisions or recommendations which were rejected based on service provision grounds of what was feasible within the government funding available. I have been sent a brief summary from officers in relation to the two bids by Sulivan in which the officers report stated that “the 2011 bid was not in line with strategy, and the 2012 bid was not considered as Early Years Provision was not/and is not considered a major challenge for the borough currently, priority of decision was around expansion of statutory school ages.”  For the avoidance of doubt, initially as the council deputy leader and later from May 2012 as leader, I was not a party to these decisions nor did I even have any knowledge of them at the time they were taken.

“The Sulivan nursery school is within a maintained primary school and is not in any competition with the ALC day nursery. This is because they both serve very different needs and different users/markets. ALC, along with a number of other private providers in the borough, offers fee paying day care services for children aged 3 months and over, open for 51 weeks per year between 7.30am and 6.30pm and is typically used by parents as an alternative to a nanny or some other form of comprehensive child care.  

“A further issue you have not asked about but which I would like to make reference to is the issue of nursery funding to 3+ year olds. The Council, like all the others in England, does allocate revenue funding to private nurseries for free child care but the Council (or its members) do not have any discretion in this which is done on the basis of central government directive. The funding is simply passed on from government to nurseries by the Council. I have sought legal advice in the past and was advised that these circumstances meant there was no interest for me to declare.

“There is also a pot of capital funding available to private, voluntary and independent day nurseries which is separate from the maintained schools’ pot (which includes nursery schools and nursery classes in primary schools) and they do not overlap. I can confirm that ALC has not applied for, nor received any capital funding. Also, ALC  does not currently participate in the 2 year olds funding programmes.

“Your suggestion that I have ‘some serious questions to answer about personal interests’ in the collective decision to merge Sulivan and New Kings schools is quite outrageous. This is the second attempt to imply there have somehow been wrongdoings of cabinet members with respect to this decision. As far as Cllr Cooney is concerned it is not my place to respond on her behalf save to say that I would like to point out that Cllr Cooney also has explained her position and there is no wrongdoing there either.”

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