Did schools minister overrule civil servants and allow sponsor with failing academy to expand? asks Private Eye

Janet Downs's picture
Prospects, whose Prospects Improve subsidiary won the Education Investor award for Education Consultant of the Year in 2012, “managed to persuade a Tory education minister to overrule his civil servants and ignore the firm’s failures”, Private Eye* reported after receiving papers under freedom of information.

In September 2010 Gloucester Academy, an amalgamation of two schools, was taken over by joint sponsors Prospects and Gloucestershire College. The sponsors sought help from academy chain, AET, for the first year.

In March 2012, Ofsted** wrote, “The academy has made inadequate progress.” According to documents released to Private Eye, Department for Education (DfE) officials were unhappy. It told Prospects’ managing direct Vincent McDonnell Prospects “was currently ‘paused’ with regard to further sponsored academy projects because of concerns over their performance in the open Gloucester Academy.”

In August 2012 McDonnell contacted the then schools minister, Lord Hill, asking for an “urgent meeting” because he regarded the DfE attitude as “unhelpful”. It was “having a negative impact” on “the commercial operation of our company”, he wrote.

Prospects met Lord Hill in October 2012. Feedback from the meeting said:

“Lord Hill wants to progress these deferred/on hold Prospects projects asap. Lord Hill’s view was that unless we have very strong reasons not to do so we should now approve these and start afresh with Prospects on a case by case basis.”

One very strong reason might have been the results of a full Ofsted inspection in October 2012 confirming that Gloucester Academy was Inadequate. However, Prospects issued a press release which implied that the inspection was far more positive than it was – the words “Inadequate” and “Requires Improvement” were missing.

Papers given to Private Eye show officials were unsure whether Ofsted’s judgement “will cause Lord Hill to think again”. One civil servant wrote:

“I’m very surprised they [Prospects] didn’t mention it [the inspection] either in the meeting with Lord Hill or when I spoke to them afterwards.”

Nevertheless, Prospects took on five more academies in autumn 2012. One of these, Bexhill Academy, was judged Inadequate in February 2013. Ofsted wrote that while Prospects Academies Trust (PAT) had “made useful improvement proposals”, governance was “ineffective in holding the school’s leaders to account”.

Ofsted’s monitoring visit in June 2013 found PAT had taken “prompt action” by establishing an interim academic board (IAB) at Bexhill. However, “greater clarity” was needed about how the IAB would develop “into a full governing body over the longer term.” The Academy’s improvement plan was judged “not fit for purpose”.

Michael Gove said in 2011 that academy chains “should grow at the fastest sustainable rate”. Since then police have been called in to investigate Priory Academies Trust, academy chain AET has been prevented from taking on more academies (although it denies it’s been barred), AET has made payments to its trustees which are considered “not normal”, the Chairman of E-Act has resigned after financial irregularities while Prospects complained to a schools minister about the attitude of DfE staff because it was detrimental to Prospects’ “commercial operation”. But sponsoring academies is not supposed to be a “commercial operation”. Or so we keep being told.

School minister Elizabeth Truss gave Private Eye a certificate authorising the DfE to retain one document because it might be “used to bring negative attention” to Prospects or the DfE. Given the nature of the revelations in the released documents, Private Eye surmised that the withheld paper “must have made particularly ugly reading.”

*Private Eye No 1346, 9-22 August 2013

**Disclaimer: citing Ofsted judgements does not imply agreement.

CORRECTION  The above post was amended 19 August at 10.33.  I had typed "McDonald" instead of "McDonnell" for the name of Prospects' managing director - this has now been corrected.  Thanks to Tubby Isaacs for pointing out the error.  Apologies for my sloppy proof reading.

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