Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A roundup of local and national stories on Academies and Free Schools (2): Silver Birches, shiny chairs and conflicts of interest

In April 2014, the Education Funding Agency published a report into a whistleblower’s allegations of financial mismanagement at the Silver Birches Academy Trust, which controls the Chingford Hall and Whittingham primary academies.  The report concluded that the school had awarded a contract for ICT services to a company which the Chair of Governors worked for, in spite of the fact that there were two lower offers. The Agency concluded that there was insufficient documentary evidence supporting the school’s decision. In addition, refurbishment work was undertaken at Whittingham Primary at a value of £56,000, for which there was no tendering process, in breach of the trust’s own contracting policy. Of this total, £25,000 was accounted for by the purchase of a range of items for the Executive Headteacher’s office, including 14 executive armchairs. As the agency rather mildly put it, ‘We have not seen a business case to support the assertion that this represented value for money’.

It would be tempting to say of course that this was an anomaly, or a case of people making mistakes and it’s all better now, but the truth is that the findings of the EFA report into Silver Birches mirror a national problem with academies. That’s pretty much the conclusion of a report commissioned by the Education Select Committee, a powerful committee of MPs who oversee education policy. Their report, published in September highlighted a series of areas where governors of academy trusts were acting in ways that conflicted with the public interest. These included:

  • Connected or related party transactions, in which people on Trust Boards benefited personally, or through their companies from their positions
  • Sponsors providing paid services through arrangements that prevent schools using other services
  • Inappropriate levels of control over school decision making
  • Poor skills or capabilities on trust boards
  • Inattention to or ignoring of rules on conflicts of interests, particularly among ‘young’ or fast growing trusts
  • Over-powerful executives and governing bodies too small to hold them to account
  • Failure to implement competitive tendering or have regard to value for money (pp. 4-6)

Much of this echoes other analysis of the problems of academies, including our own briefing to the governors of St Mary’s and St Saviour’s and our analysis of Free Schools which you can read here.

The fact is that there is growing recognition that the academies and free schools policies are broken and are in urgent need of fixing. Yet regardless of this, groups of governors, with the connivance and active support of the government, are continuing to remove our schools from our communities and place them in the hands of small groups of people who are not being properly held to account for their actions. This is a recipe for more and more problems in our schools.

It’s time for a change. Some of this is about technical fixes in the law or the school system to mend gaping holes that encourage bad practice. But it’s also about more than that. We need to move the debate on and rebuild our school system around a new mass consensus about what it is that our schools are for and how they should be run. Competition and consumer choice have been tried and are failing, day in, day out.

That’s one reason why we’ve launched our Charter for Education - to start a debate that we can all get involved in that can shape the behaviour of our schools locally now and that can play a part in shaping the ideas of the future. Get involved in the debate!


  1. The Head must have a big office to fit in all those Executive armchairs.

    This organisation was matched to my kids' school in Tottenham by a well-paid academies broker, and Haringey Council wanted us to accept. I'm glad we held out, for lots of important reasons.

  2. And I should point out, in this case it was the governing body that didn't want the school taken over by the academy trust. Other governing bodies have been removed for resisting academisation, and when I became a parent governor we thought that might well happen to us, just round the corner from the former Downhills School, now a Harris Academy.