Aspire Academy opened in 2014 as a stand-alone alternative provision free school. It was transferred to TBAP in 2017 after trustees thought the school would be better off in a multi-academy trust.
But the financial foundation of TBAP was shaky. And the Department for Education knew about the trust’s financial difficulties when it allowed TBAP to take over Aspire and other schools.
Aspire’s head Deb Garfield showed Panorama a sheaf of final demands for overdue bills for which TBAP was responsible. Damaged fire doors could not be replaced because TBAP hadn’t paid the provider.
The trust was sent a financial notice to improve in August 2018. TBAP admitted the 2016/17 accounts* had to be ‘restated’ as they were ‘materially inaccurate’. The stated deficit of £758k was actually £2.4m.
TBAP’s most recent accounts* show the ‘cumulative deficit’ from 2016/17 had increased ‘albeit at a significantly reduced rate’ than previously. TBAP had to ask the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) for ‘additional support’.
Whistleblowers, speaking independently, told Panorama that TBAP’s ‘books were cooked’. The whistleblowers also alleged that Seamus Oates CBE, TBAP’s CEO and accounting officer, knew about it.
TBAP denied this: it had encountered financial difficulties due to ‘a lack of external funding and poor internal financial systems’.
TBAP’s accounts say its financial management came under pressure because of the trust’s ‘rapid growth’. ESFA must bear some responsibility for allowing TBAP to expand so swiftly especially when its financial woes were known.
The trust said it had now put ‘robust’ procedures in place. According to its accounts, this includes saving £1.1m in staff restructuring.
Trainee teacher Katherine Frances told Panorama that hers was one of the threatened jobs. ‘We’re literally numbers on a spreadsheet that can be deleted without any thought’. She said there was an ‘uneasy feeling’ within the school because there weren’t enough staff for them to feel safe.
TBAP said it undertook ‘robust assessments’ when cutting staff.
Panorama described the situation as a ‘financial shambles’.
Schools minister Lord Agnew told Panorama that Oates had taken his ‘eye off the ball and the governance was not strong enough to blow the whistle on him.’
But the government has repeatedly missed such financial wrongdoing, Panorama said.
*Available from Companies House