“There are a considerable number of confidentiality clauses on people employed in that trust, which is totally against our view. Also, some – the head of one of the schools – left within six or nine months, subject to a confidentiality clause. We take a strong view on that.”
Margaret Hodge, Chair of Public Accounts Committee (PAC), 13 January 2014*
The head “who only survived a few months” was Annaliese Briggs who left a free school
run by Future Academies, the academy trust set up by Lord Nash** before he became schools minister, shortly after the start of the school's first term. A second head in a Future Academies primary school resigned shortly afterwards
. Hodge believed there was widespread use of confidentiality clauses, so-called "gagging" agreements, at this trust.
Hodge repeated that PAC took a “strong view” on the use of confidentiality clauses. She asked Peter Lauener, Chief Executive of the Education Funding Agency (EFA), if the EFA had a policy on the appropriateness of such clauses for employees in free schools financed with public money.
Lauener replied there was no particular requirement in the Academies Financial Handbook about severance arrangements and confidentiality. But the issue was very important, said Hodge, especially when there was “fragmentation and independence”: people should feel able to discuss anything that is in the public interest.
Whistleblowing legislation covers academy employees, said Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary for the Department for Education (DfE). But Richard Bacon MP wasn’t convinced: he asked Wormald if he agreed confidentiality clauses in severance agreements have a “chilling effect”.
Academies are “autonomous institutions”, said Wormald. But they receive public money which is used to make severance payments, replied Bacon. The issue, then, said Hodge, was “whether or not confidentiality clauses inhibit people from talking about issues when they part company with a particular academy trust.”
Hodge summed by saying:
“It is going to be a growing issue in the education service, as it is in health. It has had a very bad effect in health on our ability to find out what has been happening in particular hospital trusts.”
It isn’t the first time the issue of confidentiality clauses has been aired in the context of free schools. The head of Barnfield Moorlands Free School was prohibited from discussing his departure by a confidentiality clause
. In October, it was announced Barnfield Federation, which runs the free school, would be investigated by the EFA and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) for possible “grade massaging” and the Federation’s “operational finances”. Five days ago, Skills Minister Matthew Hancock announced the Further Education Commissioner would be investigating the Federation
over its "adequacy of financial controls".
*Uncorrected evidence downloadable here
. The transcript has not yet been approved as a formal record of the oral evidence taken before PAC on 13 January. Neither witnesses nor MPs have had the opportunity to correct the record. I will amend this thread if the corrected evidence differs from anything discussed here.
**Lord Nash was named in the uncorrected evidence. Wormald said he would check the “particular accusations about Lord Nash” because he didn’t want them left on the record without checking first.