Just how corrupt does a free school have to be, to be seen as unacceptable?

Henry Stewart's picture
That was the question posed in Parliament by David Ward, the Liberal MP for Bradford. Others may have seen his damning indictment already, as it dates from 19th November. But for those who haven't, and because it is fine piece of Parliamentary oratory, I think it is worth reading. And reporters and activists locally in Bradford have told me how surprised they are that this scandal is not getting more national attention.

Last week, in response to the Guardian revelation that individuals and companies linked to academies were making millions - the DfE claimed: "The rules are clear. No individual or organisation with a governing relationship to an academy can make a profit." They presumably believe this is also true of free schools. The Kings Science saga indicates that an awful lot has to happen before anybody intervenes. Over to David Ward:

"At the Kings science academy, a principal with no experience even as a deputy, let alone a head teacher, was appointed without an interview. Is that acceptable to the Minister?

Prior to the new build, £460,000 was invested in temporary accommodation at an old school of which the principal’s father was a trustee. Is that acceptable?

Insurance was paid on the school—a temporary provision—to an insurance company set up by a trust of which the principal’s father was a trustee. Is that acceptable?

The principal himself was shown to be a director of that insurance company, although he claimed that that was a mistake. Is that acceptable?

A benefactor—more correctly referred to by the hon. Member for Gateshead as a beneficiary—called Alan Lewis, who happens to be a vice-chairman of the Conservative party, provided a site containing warehouses that were largely derelict and empty, but then received £10 million-worth of public money to build the new school.

We have now heard that he will receive £6 million over a 20-year period, after which the building reverts back to his sole ownership. That same person, at the time of the negotiations on the lease payments on the new building, was chair of the governing body. Is that acceptable to the Minister?

An accountants’ report in the summer of 2012—the accountants brought in were those of, guess who, Alan Lewis—identified widespread financial irregularities dating back as long ago as the period before the school’s opening, but the Education Funding Agency did not send in the external assurance team until a scheduled visit took place in December 2012. It waited for a scheduled visit! Is that acceptable to the Minister?

Bill Esterson: The hon. Gentleman is describing a disgraceful and worsening litany of what has happened at the school in his constituency. Is there a way of providing oversight that would avoid all those terrible things that he is describing?

Mr Ward: My great concern is that the oversight is not wanted, because were it in place, it would ask the awkward questions that people do not want to answer. We do not see what we do not look for.

An internal audit investigation team at the beginning of 2013 concurred with the accountants’ report—by now six months old—and identified fraudulent claims for Department for Education funding;

the appointment, without interview, of the principal’s mother, father and sister as school staff; payments to the principal of pension contributions due to the Teachers’ Pensions agency, claimed from the DFE; and much more.

Yet the principal was not suspended. Is that acceptable to the Minister?

Thanks to John Roberts at the Yorkshire Post, we know that the DFE is blaming an administrative error for the failure of the police to investigate, when only a week before the Department had claimed that the police had decided not to investigate. Is that acceptable?

When told by the police that they did not have enough information to proceed with an investigation, the DFE failed to send them the full and damning audit report. Is that acceptable?

We were told that the police did not get the audit report, because they did not ask for it. The audit report, available in May 2013, was not published until 25 October, just before the broadcasting of a critical “Newsnight” investigation into the school. Is that acceptable?

When the DFE was questioned about what action it intended to take following the publication of the report, the Department replied that—wait for it—the school had launched its own investigation and that any disciplinary action was a matter for the school. Is that acceptable?

In answering that particular question, will the Minister bear in mind that the principal’s brother is on the disciplinary committee?

My questions are not rhetorical; they require answers. Are those things acceptable? Is that the level we have fallen to in terms of accountability?

Finally, if all those things are acceptable in the name of freedom, will the Minister tell me just how corrupt a free school has to be to be unacceptable?

How many more schools are like the one I have been talking about? Are we talking about the tip of an iceberg?

Earlier, the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) talked about a wonderful school with great governance arrangements, but, in truth, how do we know?

We know clearly from the Kings science academy that when matters were wrong and wrongdoing was taking place day in, day out, they did not come to public attention.

We simply do not know the answer to the question of how many more such schools there are, but it makes you think, doesn’t it?"

David Ward, Bradford East, Lib Dem

Source: Hansard, 19 November 2013, 10.17am


Note: The DfE now claims that, although Alan Lewis (Vice-chairman of the Conservative Party nationally) was listed on the school web site as Chair of Governors for over a year, he never in fact held that position. It is unclear if anybody else did.

David Ward refers to the reporting of John Roberts, who has done a remarkably determined job writing for the Yorkshire Post. Some of his articles:

2/12/2013: Exclusive: Ministry ‘misled MPs’ over inquiry at Bradford free school
4/1/2014:  Exclusive: Mystery of scandal-hit Bradford academy’s leadership deepens
Exclusive: Head teacher arrested in fraud probe at Bradford free school



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Ian Taylor's picture
Tue, 21/01/2014 - 22:39

Thank you for this information. It makes depressing reading.
What type of democracy do we have when these questions are raised in parliament, and no satisfactory answers are forthcoming? Is there a deficit of accountability? Is the story being kept quiet because Mr Gove as a journalist has important friends in the newspapers? Is there a mechanism for the general public to demand an enquiry? Why are the Labour Party and Tristram Hunt not making a big noise about this? Are we being governed by incompetents or worse?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 22/01/2014 - 07:30

And questions are still being asked about Kings Science Academy. The Public Accounts Committee* member Austin Mitchell asked if proper scrutiny had taken place before Kings was allowed to open. The Committee members then asked why it was that 3 free schools had been allowed to open despite being deemed "red" (warning).

It also asked why the Discovery Free School (now being closed) was allowed to open despite warnings from the Montessori Association.

*uncorrected evidence available from: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/public-accounts/PA...

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 22/01/2014 - 07:34

There was a longer exchange re Kings Science Academy and the fraud investigation later in the PAC exchange (see above). Margaret Hodge, chair of PAC, made this comments about the delay in investigating fraud and how it only came to public attention when a TV programme was about to be broadcast:

"That is what is so stupid about it; you should not have had to wait for public disclosure for you and everyone to act. I am all for public disclosure of things going wrong, but it is not appropriate to wait for that to get people to take action."

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 22/01/2014 - 07:42

Later on, Hodge said this re Kings:

"If “Newsnight” hadn’t covered it, it feels to me as though you would have just let things lie."

Peter Lauener, Chief Executive of EFA replied:

"I can absolutely say that that is not the case. It is ironic, but we were just about to publish our investigation report. We made it very clear in the academies financial handbook that we will always publish our investigation reports. The question, which can be quite difficult to consider, is when is the right time to publish the report?"

Ironic indeed especially as similar investigations into Quentin Kynaston School were published immediately and the head resigned. But, ironically, Kings was delayed.

John Wadsworth's picture
Wed, 22/01/2014 - 07:57

This is just one of many. The Greenwich Free School was signed off by Gove despite there being 1600 surplus secondary places in Greewich. It's two founders are a senior advisor to Gove at the DfE and an education policy wonk at the right wing Policy Exchange which is also linked to Gove. The school's headteacher had limited experience of leadership and has left the school after being in post for less than 2 years. This one must rank fairly high on the something stinks index.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 22/01/2014 - 08:51

The Yorkshire Post has obtained emails which have prompted shadow education minister Kevin Brennan to say:

“The chief executive of the Education Funding Agency [Peter Lauener] gave the impression to the [PAC] committee [13 Jan 2014] that the DfE actively asked Action Fraud if more information was required to conduct a police investigation into the Kings Science Academy. In fact they did not do so in emails to Action Fraud and had been told by Action Fraud that there was no police investigation because the matter was being dealt with as an information report."

“They were also told more information would be needed and the case would need to be reported as a crime for police to be able to act. It is deeply unfortunate that the chief executive did not supply this information to the committee so that its members could understand that the Government had been informed seven weeks before Newsnight that this matter was only being dealt with an information report.”


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 22/01/2014 - 12:53

The Public Accounts Committee also expressed concern about the use of confidentiality agreements by free schools, namely Lord Nash's Future Academies. It found there's no advise in the Academies Financial Handbook.

More information in my new thread here:


John Mountford's picture
Wed, 22/01/2014 - 21:27

A frightening expose. This is the most damning indictment to date of the current scandal besetting state education. It would appear there is a conspiracy of silence promoted by the government of the day, aided and abetted, with a few notable exceptions, by an indifferent media and aimed at turning a blind eye to gross financial misconduct. It is appropriate to ask, what is the official opposition doing to tackle this assault on democracy? How much more evidence should be needed for the serious fraud squad to investigate cases like this one?

If the case had not already been proven, that the impact of party political tampering is the single most serious threat to the future of our education system, then this report should establish that fact beyond any reasonable doubt. Education must be freed from political interference. It is damaging the policy making and governance of our national education system to tied to the electoral cycle. I am calling for a new way forward and argue the case here - http://www.ordinaryvoices.org.uk/

With each new revelation of the gross excesses of Michael Gove, supported through the distorted inspection process under the arrogant leadership of Michael Willshaw, our education system sinks lower into the mire. It must not continue thus. It is unforgivable that the excesses of the present regime go largely unchallenged by the official opposition as they wait and hope that the next election will allow them to meddle fecklessly in the governance of education to the detriment of ALL the young people in our schools and colleges.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 23/01/2014 - 12:01

And the political classes wonder why they rate so low in public opinion, are almost universally distrusted and why apathy is rife amongst the general public for Westminster and our political systems and processes!

Yes, this a comprehensive indictment of the coalition and in particular the SoS Educ. but by no means is it an isolated case across the political divide and across the decades.

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