The freedom afforded to academies is not working.
The freedom afforded to academies is not working
Yesterday the Observer exposed a £2 million fraud at an academy chain. The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation was one of Michael Gove’s favourite academy federations; he frequently cited in speeches and visited it to make his own speeches.
Shocking as it may be, it is not the first time incident of large scale educational fraud. In March the government stopped 14 other academy chains from expanding due to financial mismanagement and poor educational standards.
But the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation fraud feels different – it is an academy chain that is at the heart of the educational establishment. Moreover, my children are among its pupils and I have some questions I want to ask Michel Gove.
The Federation’s mother school was a former voluntary aided grammar school in New Cross Gate, supported by the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers. It later became a comprehensive academy and in 2007 its principal was Elizabeth Sidwell.
The school got good results and there was there is a large cohort of motivated and intellectually curious children. My children have been very happy there and have had some inspiring teachers. I would still strongly recommend Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College to any would-be parent.
Taking over a number of other schools, the original school is now part of a larger academy chain. Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation presently runs three 3-18 academies in Lewisham and Bexley, a new Free School and, until recently, was the preferred partner for another academy in East Dulwich.
I am afraid to say that the ethos that was present in 2007 is fading and has been replaced by a corporate image. There have been expensive and wholly unnecessary refurbishments of the reception areas. Plasma screen TVs abound; meanwhile children complain that academic departments have no materials. The head teacher and Bursar have become a chief executive and chief financial officer, the former on a salary of £150,001-£160,000 according to the school’s accounts.
This is by no means unusual – a Plymouth academy recently advertised a heads post at £200,000. The average salary of a local authority secondary head is £90,000 per year and a teaching assistant earns £12,500-£15,500 per year – many have term-time only contracts. My first question to Michael Gove concerns pay and conditions:
At a time of austerity, is it acceptable that academy heads earn so much more than other teachers? Would this money not be better spent on children?
Over the last seven years, the Haberdasher’s Aske’s Federation was frequently cited as an example of the success of the academy project. In 2008, it was praised as an example of good governance and financial management by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (page 24 of PDF).
But the growth of the Haberdashers Aske’s Federation has not been without problems. In November 2013 one if its 3-18 academies in Lewisham was judged to be inadequate and failed its Ofsted inspection due to poor behaviour and inadequate sixth form teaching.
Rather than acknowledge the problems and deal with them, the school challenged the Ofsted inspection. Parents waited four months to learn of its outcome, eventually receiving a letter from the head in March 2014. My second question to Michael Gove concerns challenges to Ofsted findings.
How many schools challenge inspection results? Where do they receive their funding to do this?
In June 2014 parents received another letter, this time concerning the £2 million fraud. Although there have been rumours circulating among parents for about 18 months, the school was forced to admit it had lost £2 million due to fraud, over a seven year period.
In its accounts some £1,047,788 was filed as being lost in the financial year 2010-11, and a further £1.35 million in 2011-12. While the Met police say that a 55-year old male is currently on bail, ultimately the responsibility for financial probity lies with company directors, the chief executive and the chief finance officer.
Both the chief executive and the CFO at the time of the perpetration of the fraud remain intimately connected with the Gove academy project.
In May 2011 Gove appointed Elizabeth Sidwell to be his Schools commissioner and to promote academies and their good governance. In 2013 her contract was extended. She has left the job, but she remains in the pay of the government through her work with the University Technology Colleges Trust.
The role of the chief finance office is to look after the money. Paul Durgan had this position between 2002 and 2012 before he moved, first to the specialist academy accountant Baker Tilly and then to the Merganser Academies Trust. The Haberdashers Aske’s fraud strikes at the heart of the educational establishment.
As noted above, this is not the first incident of fraud or corruption in academies. Some 13 academy chains covering 170 schools remain barred from expansion and in May 2014 the Prospects Chain became the first to close.
As I write this, I wonder if local authority schools or solo academies are less vulnerable to fraud. It is difficult to say, particularly as the government has abolished the Audit Commission and that local authorities have less capacity for forensic audits due to budget cuts.
My third question to Michael Gove is to ask him how he plans to improve financial probity in schools.
Last week the Local Government Association called for more oversight of academies. It argued to admissions policy and budgetary accountability should be the responsibility of trusts. The Haberdasher’s Aske’s fraud shows that the current system and the freedom afforded to academies is not working. Ultimately it is our children that suffer.
Jill Rutter is an associate editor of Left Foot ForwardLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.