Sajid Raza, founder and former head of Kings Science Academy, Bradford, and two other staff members including his sister have been found guilty of fraud.
The Court heard the fraud commenced as early as 2010 during the period Raza was gaining approval to open one of the first flagship free schools. Civil servants expressed concern about Raza’s competence for leadership and financial management but Raza fended off challenges by threatening to call the then Education Secretary Michael Gove. It appears Raza thought Gove’s patronage earned him special privileges – in this case avoidance of proper scrutiny.
Raza was one of Gove’s favourites. In an Evening Standard article (September 2011), Gove described Raza as an ‘inspirational’ teacher who’d returned to Bradford to open a free school ‘for underprivileged children ambitious to follow in his footsteps’. Prime Minister David Cameron made a high-profile visit during the free school’s first year and said how ‘impressed’ he’d been.
When the first 24 free schools opened, the Department for Education said each of them had had to ‘develop robust plans for how the school planned to run its finances (which then were scrutinised to make sure the school would be financially viable)’. But Raza already had one court judgement against him for debt and had made false claims for mortgage applications for buy-to-let properties, the Court heard. Nevertheless, Raza received his first DfE grants towards the proposed free school within just two months of his initial application.
This raises serious questions about the robustness of the scrutiny into the first free schools and whether the haste to open as many as possible in 2011 overrode prudence. It also raises the question about the role of Michael Gove in pushing through these early applications in order to trumpet the free schools programme. Gove was later accused of sitting on the negative report on Kings Science Academy for over three months until Newsnight threatened to expose it.
The free school application process has now been tightened up. But the Government is committed to opening 500 more free schools during this Parliament. It’s to be hoped that standards of scrutiny don’t slip so the Government can meet its target.
ADDENDUM My next article will consider the history of the first 24 free schools.