Academies have provided new levels of autonomy to schools. But some have perhaps used this a bit too creatively. At one London academy trust, consisting of two primary schools, the Head is now paid £170,000, the ICT support contract has been given to the Chair of Governor's company and the furniture spend includes almost £4,500 on a desk and £5,000 on a conference table.
How much has your Head spent on their desk? Maybe £200 for a basic one, £500 for something a bit special? At Silver Birch Academy Trust in Waltham Forest they spent £4,487 on the Headteacher's desk, £4,887 on a conference table, £4,967 on a wall unit, £1,687 on a fridge unit and £780 on four plant pots. This came to light from an EFA investigation
, after they were contacted by two whistle-blowers in the school. In classic civil service understatement, the report states "we have not seen a business case to support the assertion that these represented value for money."
The furniture, totalling £46,490, was bought without being put out to tender. Although the school policy is to take quotes for spending above £5,000 and the above purchase consisted of 14 invoices, each below the threshold. The Head stated "that there was no intention to split payments and this was not an attempt to avoid the need for written quotations". The fact that so many of the items are for just under £5,000 (including 3 more not listed above) is pure coincidence. On a single day a total of £24,315 was invoiced but these were split into 7 invoices, each under £5,000.
The school's defence is that they can generate income by renting out the rooms that the furniture is in. I submitted a Freedom of Information request a month ago to ask how often they have managed to rent out the headteacher's office, to make full use of that desk, but have received no reply to date.
ICT Services awarded to Chair of Governor's Company
The EFA report also covers the awarding of an ICT services contract, which was won by a company where the Chair of Governors works - despite theirs being the most expensive of the three bids submitted. The investigation, although detailing that the higher bid reflected more services, notes "a lack of clear documentation to support the decision to award the contract".
The £170,000 salary: From public money
The Silver Birch Academy Trust is based in Waltham Forest in East London and consists of just two primary schools. Chingford Hall and Whittingham. They seem to be doing a good job, with Chingford Hall rated Outstandng and Whittingham rated Good. However the trust accounts (download from here
, p29) reveal that Executive Headteacher Patricia Davies was paid between £170,000 and £175,000 in the year 2012/13. This is around three times the average salary for a primary headteacher and £30,000 more than the Prime Minister earns. Between the two schools there are just 750 students, and each school also has its own headteacher.
Academy Trusts are free to set salaries as they wish and also to buy whatever equipment and furniture they judge is necessary. However, as Tory MP Richard Bacon thundered when the Public Accounts Committee examined the financial accountability of academies, "this is public money".
The EFA report did not find evidence of fraud and simply proposed a tightening up of financial procedures and governance. But it was outside its remit to address whether the trust was making good use of public money.
Is it really appropriate that our education budget be spent on a £170k salary for a primary headteacher (even an "Executive Headteacher"), £5,000 conference tables and £4,500 desks?
Note: I came across the Silver Birch Academy Trust through involvement in the successful campaign of parents at Snaresbrook Primary School to resist becoming an academy. Silver Birch was the proposed trust for Snaresbrook. I was alerted to the above EFA report by a Snaresbrook parent, who felt very relieved that Snaresbrook had avoided the fate of becoming part of this Trust.