£1.5m was awarded to Leigh Academies Trust (LAT) when it took over Corelli College, a stand-alone converter academy in Greenwich run by Corelli College Co-operative Academy Trust (CCCAT), Private Eye (1 June 2018) reveals.
But this £1.5m won’t appear in the Department for Education’s list of transfer costs. That’s because Greenwich taxpayers will fund it.
Corelli College, originally Kidbrooke School, converted to academy status in 2011. Council Minutes from 2011 show Kidbrooke’s land and building would be ‘transferred to the school on a 125-year lease’, Private Eye writes. There would be safeguards to ensure the land was returned to the local authority (LA) if the academy was ‘discontinued’.
The Minutes also listed ‘matters to be resolved’ concerning whether unused tennis courts, land next to the entrance and a manager’s house would be included in the lease or kept by the LA.
These matters weren’t resolved and a formal lease wasn’t signed.
In 2016/17, Corelli College experienced financial difficulties* blamed in part on falling rolls and competition with free schools in Greenwich. Fearing further strain, the Trustees informed the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). The Trust agreed a recovery plan which would lead to Corelli College joining LAT in early 2018.
Before LAT took over Corelli College, however, it ‘promptly asked for £500,000’ from the LA for ‘essential health and safety work’, the Eye says. This was granted ‘in recognition of the retention of land and premises manager’s house’. These would ‘definitely be excluded’ from any lease.
A month later, however, a report to Greenwich council’s leader asked for a further £1m to be paid to LAT as ‘in respect of a disputed interest in land’.
The report revealed the academy would have a five-year ‘licence’ for the use of the house and land, valued at £1m, but they would not be included in the lease.
In March, Conservative councillor Spencer Drury raised the matter with council leader Denise Hyland. Cllr Drury said ‘over half of the council tax increase’ would go to LAT. He wanted to know how that happened. He’d read the reports and ‘they are opaque at best’.
The leader responded by saying all the council had done was ‘purchase two pieces of land from Corelli’. The cash was needed ‘desperately to make that building fit for purpose’.
But the council owned the land. How could it purchase land which it owned?
‘The school have claimed they had legal rights to that land in question, and quite legitimately, we have offered a million pounds in settlement where we own those pieces of land.’
It appears that failing to sort out a lease in 2011 has now resulted in an academy trust claiming ‘legal rights’ to the land. This oversight is now costing Greenwich local taxpayers £1m.
Cllr Christine Grice, Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources who’s also a CCCAT director, objected to the council scrutinising the deal. She didn’t think it was ‘appropriate’ to continue the debate.
Corelli was closed on 28 February 2018 for a ‘fresh start’, Schools Performance Tables show. Its successor, The Halley Academy, boasts about its ‘expansive premises…spread out generously over the estate’. Its listed status is ‘testimony’ to the buildings’ ‘character and practicality’.
Odd, then, that just a few months ago, the council leader said money was essential because the building wasn’t fit for purpose.
This case once again raises questions about money changing hands when academies are transferred. This time, however, it’s not the Department for Education which is responsible. It’s a council. And it could act as a precedent if academy trusts find similar loopholes in leases and demand compensation from land owners (usually hard-pressed councils).
This incident, Private Eye concludes, rather undermines Government claims the academies programme does not allow school land to be ‘given away on an enormous scale’.
*Accounts for Corelli College Co-operative Academy Trust available from Companies House