Profit before pupils: Panorama investigates

Janet Downs's picture

Money for repairs at Bright Tribe academies not spent as expected

An investigation by BBC Panorama, to be aired tonight,  found public money given to the now-notorious Bright Tribe Education Trust for repairs and upgrades was not spent as expected.

The most well-known example of neglect is Whitehaven Academy where rebuilding issues preceded Bright Tribe’s takeover of Whitehaven School.  But a planned amalgamation which would have resulted in a new £33m building was scuppered when Bright Tribe withdrew. 

Whitehaven Academy was not alone, Panorama has discovered.  Bright Tribe received £566k to remove and replace unsafe walls in Colchester Academy’s sports centre, but Schools Week, reporting on the Panorama findings, says repairs ‘using metal braces’ were done instead.  This much cheaper work is reputed to have cost just £60k.    

DfE gave money to Bright Tribe for expansion

Bright Tribe received £25k in transfer fees when it took over Colchester Academy in 2015/16.  But this wasn’t the only extra money which the Department for Education (DfE) gave to Bright Tribe.  In 2016/17, the Trust received £241k in a bail-out grant for the now-closed Greater Manchester Sustainable Engineering UTC.   Earlier, in November 2015, the DfE gave Bright Tribe £1m to expand in the ‘Northern Hub’.    This was despite the DfE having received whistleblower allegations in July 2015 about financial impropriety at Bright Tribe.  

Schools minister Lord Agnew told Panorama that 95% of academy trusts had no financial issues and the DfE wouldn’t tolerate dodgy financial dealing in academy trusts.  But questions about Bright Tribe were raised before it was given £1m for expansion and before it was given permission to take over more academies including the troubled Grindon Hall in Tyne and Wear.

The DfE, as well as academy trusts acting similarly to Bright Tribe, would do well to take more care with public money.

Panorama will be shown tonight at 8.30 pm

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John Mountford's picture
Mon, 10/09/2018 - 21:33

Thanks for this one Janet. For once, the BBC is close on your heels. I have just finished watching the live showing of the Panorama programme and I cannot believe what I have just witnessed. That Bright Tribe and the DfE (Department for Extravagance) are guilty of failing all the pupils in the schools under consideration is beyond question. That there is fraud and criminality associated in this instance is certain. All that remains is for the police to investigate the allegations fully.
What I cannot accept, however, is that others who had a responsibility to demand answers to fundamental questions over an extended period of time appear to have done nothing. I am referring to school governors and senior staff in the schools featured. I served as a governor for over twenty years during my teaching career and in all that time never attended a meeting where up-to-date, detailed financial data were unavailable to me and my fellow governors. How could the governors interviewed have allowed a trust or (as they are now known) executive headteacher/CEO to get away with failure to provide them with the information needed for governors to discharge one of their primary responsibilities, to have oversight of financial management? If we are to believe what was revealed by this investigatiopn, this happened repeatedly. WHY?
It is my fervent hope that finally, the public will appreciate the work you and others are doing to cast light on these issues. The Conservative Party has to table new legislation to make the system fit for purpose. In the meantime it is vital that governors, UNISON and other unions need to work alongside professionals and parents to stop unscrupulous individuals and organisations denying young people what is rightfully theirs.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 11/09/2018 - 08:41

John - governing bodies in academy trusts are powerless.  It's the trustees who make the decisions and the trustees are appointed by the members (which give the members significant control).  Each academy's head in a MAT isn't the CEO - one might be but it's more likely that none are.   Senior staff in academies don't have the clout of senior staff in non-academies - they are in effect junior members of staff.  This includes heads who are in effect no more than deputy heads with decisions taken elsewhere (ie by the trustees).

Many scandals in academy trusts come to light because of whistleblowers.  These are likely to be employees who are unwilling to criticise the MAT too vociferously for fear of being punished by being given the sack possibly with no reference.


Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 11/09/2018 - 09:06

John - one shocking issue re Bright Tribe/Adventure Learning is that concerns have been long-standing.  The DfE was alerted to problems before it gave Bright Tribe £1m for expansion.   This is unacceptable.  At the same time it gave a slice of the Northern Hub money to WCAT which has now collapsed.

The DfE has form when it comes to promoting certain academies and setting them up as exemplars to follow:  Durand, Barnfield Federation, Cuckoo Hall, King's Science Academy are examples of nationally-praised academies which have since been slapped with Financial Noices to Improve (or worse - former head of KSA was imprisoned for fraud). 

At the same time, the DfE encouraged certain MATs to expand which then ran into trouble:  AET, E-Act.  It even encouraged for-profit education providers to enter the English 'market': eg Kunskapsskolan set up the Learning Schools Trust,  K12 and its Erudition Schools Trust - both MAts are now defunct.  Former schools minister Lord Hill was implicated in the expansion of Prospects against the advice of civil servants.  Prospects later folded leaving six academies in limbo.  One of these, Gloucester Academy, now faces a second move. 

Lord Agnew may rightly say that 95% of academy trusts (including single ones) are financially sound but the 5% which aren't include some big players or high-profile ones lauded by the DfE.  

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 11/09/2018 - 10:18

Thanks for the clarification on the role of governors in academies, Janet. I clearly didn't have the full picture. The problem is, I am still left with is some pretty fundamental questions.

It seems like the practice of allowing academies to have governors is nothing more than a paper exercise, a ploy to quell the masses! I cannot imagine a greater waste of someone's time in the education sphere than to serve as an academy school governor if they have no opportunity to champion common sense and speak out for the students and their families in the face of the kind of unscrupulous activity revealed in the Panorama programme. Why do people bother if they are so powerless (maybe one of your readers will explain)? As far as the situation with teachers goes, why would a competent professional apply for a senior role in any academy if they understand the game? As you write, "they are in effect junior members of staff. This includes heads who are in effect no more than deputy heads with decisions taken elsewhere (ie by the trustees)."

I know that teachers as individuals are, and always have been powerless. Why do the teacher unions not take a more active role in campaigning collectively to fight the worst excesses of obviously flawed government policies? Is there possibly some truth to the common perception among many in the general population that they are mainly interested in fighting for teachers' pay and conditions? (Something they have not been particularly good at over many years into the bargain.)

In a climate where the major political parties seem intent on self-destruction, thus allowing successive governments to implement disastrous policies in health, education and social care virtually unopposed, it is little wonder that extreme ideologies threaten the core values of democracy.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 11/09/2018 - 10:38

John - I think people apply to become governors in academies under the impression they have influence.  I once saw a presentation by a MAT which showed a Powerpoint diagram of their organisational structure.  The presenter said trustees made the important decisions to 'free' governors to concentrate on holding their school to account for results.  This puts a positive gloss on what is in effect a powerless body.  Governors also act as cheer leaders for their academy which is useful PR for the trust.

Unions have spoken out about academization (here's one  from 2010).  But their concerns get little publicity and it suits most of the media to portray unions as being only interested in pay and conditions.  That said, unions are forbidden by law from taking industrial action on any policy except pay and conditions (ie they can't authorise industrial action over academization).  It's true that some local union groups have been vocal against academization of a particular school but it's likely they'd be breaking the law if they went on strike.  

Labour was silenced in their opposition because they introduced academies (and used deception to foster them).  And some Labour grandees may have been secretly in favour of schools being run for profit (see Policy Exchange document 'Blocking the Best' published  shortly before the 2010 election.  Gove spoke at its launch and said he'd be in favour of Serco running schools.  

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 11/09/2018 - 12:59

Seems like an idea I've been considering might be the only way if common sense is all that's left to fill a glaring vacuum created by our self-centred politicians. Parents and pupils need to engage if they want to end the present abuse of power in education. Those on the outside, like me, with an ongoing interest in education reform realise what's waiting in the wings. The edtec revolution is coming to a school near you soon and it is not all good news. Parents need to get up to speed, and quickly, if they hope to avoid the major downsides of more technology in classrooms before it is too late. It's clear from this latest revelation that there is no one left to fight their corner.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 11/09/2018 - 13:09

Either that or you could move to the inside and start helping.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 11/09/2018 - 10:53

John the governing body were disposed of completely to be - in theory - replaced with a governing body for a wide network of schools run by Bright Tribe on which Whitehaven Academy was to have one representative. I know promise was not kept for a long time - I doubt it ever was.

You may be shocked by this but the reality has been much, much worse than it came across on the program. Remember the presenter is limited to showing what she can really back up at this time and to covering the number of issues a viewer can easily digest.

You ask why people stay in these schools? Because we are a community of teachers. The transformation of culture in secondary education in West Cumbria over the last 30 years has been horrific to be part of. We used to be empowered professionals who treated each other with respect within a culture defined by wise head teachers who worked together to run a strong system. Now most teachers are put into capability in their first year in place because they have to get used to being relentlessly told they're failing early because that's all that happens. If you can't deal with that why be a teacher?

The problems at Whitehaven Academy were initially masked by the even more serious building problems at Wyndham (the school to the south) and are now masking the extreme problems at St Benedict's (the neighbouring schools to the north):

You talk about political parties being bent on self-destruction. I'm privileged to have seen it from the inside as a Lib Dem - working with dedicated and very able volunteers to analyse what's going on and work out and campaign for the policy modifications needed. You think this is bad? It would have been so much worse if we hadn't managed to reign Gove in a great deal during the coalition government. We forcefully demanded that Academy Chains be made accountable and were even more forcefully blocked.

I stood in the Copeland by-election in order to ensure Trudy Harrison learned what was going at Whitehaven Academy through detailed debate at hustings and she's got herself on to the education select committee and you can see how hard she's fighting this in the program.

Instead of spreading the blame so widely why not focus it where it belongs - Govism. The ideology that deliberately obliterates expertise. The ideology of cultural revolution that insists that evidence-based practice is replaced with the wandering and ungrounded whims of those with no relevant experience or capacity. We must work together to expose it for exactly what it is. The Tories rightly criticised Tom Watson for waving Mao's Little Red Book. Why didn't Labour annihilate Gove for running a cultural revolution?

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