Kings Science Academy in Bradford was chosen for one of Cameron’s photo opportunities as he and Gove launched and promoted their “free school” programme in 2011 and 2012. So the arrest, charge and bailing of the headteacher in January on fraud charges has prompted a flurry of comment. Newsworthy though this aspect of the story undoubtedly is, other aspects have a more far-reaching and general importance for the free school initiative.
An anti-academy march in Haringey, north London, January 2012.
Just before Christmas 2013, Gove was forced to admit that there were problems with the school’s finances. He acknowledged that a vice chairman of the Conservative Party, Alan Lewis, has a central relationship with the school.
A later investigation by journalists discovered that within the Department for Education, two reports into the running of the school had found problems with finance and governance but reached far different conclusions about the remedial action needed.
Earlier in 2013, after having sat on the first of these reports, Gove strove to divert attention by castigating the performance of Bradford Education rather than the performance of the school and his own department (by extension himself). It was the same trick he had tried when the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby went into free fall in October 2013 – talking about alleged failings in Derby City Council rather than facing up to the inherent failings in his own pet project.
Since then, we have had the closure of the Discovery Free School in Crawley in December. Lord Nash, Gove’s schools minister, pointed to unqualified teachers as one reasons for its poor Ofsted report. He didn’t point out that it was Gove who deliberately allowed free schools to start up with just one qualified teacher on the staff.
The faults found in these schools are not universal. But the facts that the King’s Academy is paying at least £6 million in rent to one of Alan Lewis’s companies over 20 years, and that one of the reports identified Lewis as Chair of Governors while the other did not – and he denies ever having been Chair – indicate a major challenge to good governance.
ϖ Grace Academy, which runs three schools in the Midlands, was set up by Tory donor Lord Edmiston. Journalists at The Guardian have discovered it has paid more than £1 million either directly to or through companies owned or controlled by Edmiston, to trustees’ relatives and to members of the board of trustees. Conveniently, such payments to businesses in which trustees have a beneficial interest are allowed if the trust has complied with the procedures and conditions set out in its articles of association.
The costs of setting up academies have been scrutinised by The Guardian too. School Partnership Trust Academies, which has converted more than 30 schools to academies, revealed payments of £424,850 over two years for legal services to Wrigleys Solicitors, where the SPTA director Christopher Billington is a partner, and for education consultancy to Elmet Education, where another SPTA member is a director.
All these payments are made possible on the back of public money directed to academies and are reducing the budget for schools still within the state system. ■