Trouble up North as “flagship” free school is buffeted by financial rocks. Gove accused of fraud cover-up.

Janet Downs's picture
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The Secretary of State believes Kings will become a ‘flagship school’ and will help to raise the standards of attainment in education”

Sajid H. Raza BA, Principal, Kings Science Academy, Bradford

But when Ofsted* came calling in February 2013 it judged this flagship school as “Requires Improvement”.

Worse was to come. The Education Funding Agency (EFA) investigated Kings following accusations of financial irregularities and produced a scathing report in May 2013.   One of its recommendations was for the police to be called.  This was done but no criminal charges were brought.

But the Department for Education (DfE) didn’t publish the report until after the story became public – the excuse was the DfE was waiting for the school to finish its own investigations.    Not everyone believes the DfE would postpone publication until a school proven to have been financially incompetent had investigated its own misdemeanours.  There was no such leeway given to the Quintin Kynaston Academy.  The EFA report into that school’s financial irregularities, also dated May 2013, was reported in the media in June and the head had resigned.

The mismatch into how these two schools were treated suggests that the "flagship" free school was given favourable treatment.

Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has been accused of covering up fraud.

Kings now says it has robust procedures to ensure financial probity.   An EFA letter dated July 2013 said “substantial progress has been made to address the weaknesses”.  However, the EFA still wanted to know how long it would take the trustees to deal with “residual weaknesses” and how Kings planned to repay “those funds identified as being not used for the purposes intended” (ie the misappropriated money).

The DfE press release, published yesterday, summarises the EFA findings and attempts to downplay the shambolic financial oversight at Kings by saying that “financial accountability of academies and free schools [is] more rigorous than maintained schools”.  This is because:

1         Academy trusts are companies and charities.  They have to comply with laws governing companies and charities.

2         They have to “file independently audited annual accounts.”

Far from being beneficial, these legal duties are a millstone.  LA maintained schools are free from these extra responsibilities so can concentrate on fulfilling their core purpose: educating children.  The Academies Commission found many heads of converter academies were surprised when they encountered these extra financial and legal burdens.  They felt the promised freedom from red tape hadn't materialised but had got worse.

The DfE is not being entirely truthful when it says academies and free schools are subject to tighter financial regulation.  The reason they have to submit their own audited accounts is because there is no external body which has oversight.  LA maintained schools are subject to LA scrutiny: LAs have a statutory responsibility to audit all their schools.

It appears, then, the DfE is attempting to play down what many believe to be a deliberate concealment by implying that the finances of LA schools aren’t audited when they are and, in the Newsnight report, saying there were more financial scandals in other schools.

I have submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for numbers and names of any LA maintained school with proven financial irregularities since September 2011 when free schools started.
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