Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust (CHAT) breached its Funding Agreement and the Independent Schools Standards, the Education Funding Agency (EFA) concluded after an investigation into whistleblowers’ accusations.
The executive principal, Patricia Sowter, often praised by ex-Education Secretary Michael Gove, her husband, Phil Sowter, a trustee, and the head of Cuckoo Hall Academy, Sharon Ahmet, had been suspended in December but an internal investigation exonerated them. All three were reinstated in early January. Andry Efthymiou , who was chair of CHAT when the three were suspended, has since been removed from her post.
But the EFA found significant problems. It has issued a damning report and a Financial Notice to Improve. CHAT’s Supplementary Funding Agreement will be terminated if it doesn’t take action to address weaknesses.
These weaknesses include:
1 Insufficient monitoring of credit card expenditure.
2 Undeclared conflicts of interest including three which related to appointments and one relating to the former Chair.
3 Some salary increases not being ‘transparent’.
4 Inaccuracies in the Single Central Register of staff. This had been changed to ‘create a false impression’ about when statutory suitability checks were received.
Two areas of complaint were outside the EFA’s remit. These were:
1 Accusations of malpractice in the conduct of tests.
2 Accusations that staff were bullied.
In a statement to Schools Week, CHAT said the report ‘refutes a number of unfounded allegations’. But some claims still require investigation.
The accusation alleging test malpractice has been passed to the Standards and Testing Agency.
A second unresolved issue is bullying. The Trust is responsible for investigating this, the EFA said. EFA investigators heard some evidence that CHAT’s bullying policy hadn’t been complied with although ‘some senior staff’ found senior leaders were supportive.
But can an academy trust investigate charges of bullying fairly when trustees include heads? Unless such allegations are undertaken by an independent body, there will always be a perception that investigations are unfair. Staff may tolerate bullying rather than run the risk of complaining to the Academy Trust and face the possibility of the sack.
A third unresolved question concerns changes made to Cuckoo Hall’s Single Central Register (SCR) to make it appear Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks had been received before staff started work. Ofsted inspectors in June 2014 noted gaps in documents recording safeguarding requirements but said ‘substantial improvements’ were made during the inspection.
But EFA investigators weren’t satisfied with these ‘substantial improvements.’ They found the SCR didn’t match pay roll data. This showed ‘a significant number of staff’ started work before receipt of DBS clearance including two senior staff. The EFA wrote:
‘The failure to have one [Single Central Register] is a serious breach of the Standards and the funding agreement. If a register has been created or amended so as to create a false impression of suitability checks, then that is a matter of concern.’
It's an understatement to say altering a school's Single Central Register to hide malpractice is a just a ‘matter of concern'. Further investigations need to take place to discover if records were falsified in order to deceive Ofsted and whether those responsible have been disciplined or dismissed.
Another of the EFA’s concerns was the amount spent on furniture and hospitality. This might not have been value for money, the EFA said. CHAT’s accounts for the last two academic years (downloadable here) show CHAT spent £9000 in 2012/13 and £12,000 in 2013/14 on ‘hospitality’. It's unclear why an academy trust needs to spend so much money on this.
The CHAT statement to Schools Week admits ‘some of our policies and processes have not developed’ and blames the rapid expansion of CHAT from a single academy to a multi-academy trust with five schools. CHAT admits its swift growth led to problems. One conflict of interest, for example, arose because of pressure to fill leadership posts especially when the Trust took over Enfield Heights free school from CfBT in September 2014.
This raises the question voiced by the Academies Commission: academy chains being allowed to grow too quickly. They become overstretched.
It is clear CHAT is a troubled academy chain despite the Trust’s reassurances. Investigations into alleged exam malpractice and bullying still need to take place. Questions remain over falsifying documents. CHAT has been told to sort itself out or face termination of its Funding Agreement. In the meantime, the Department for Education should pause CHAT from taking on further academies or opening free schools.
This is a companion piece to David Barry’s thread summarising local press articles concerning CHAT. It was written before the publication of the EFA’s findings and the Financial Notice to Improve.