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Academy and free-school champion resigns from new job due to DfE investigation

The former head of a federation of free schools and academies has stood down from his new job due to an ongoing investigation into mismanagement in his previous role.

Sir Peter Birkett, who was knighted under the current government, has resigned as chief executive at the Gems international private schools’ chain after just three months because of a government-led probe into the finances of Luton-based Barnfield College, which he previously led.

It is understood that Sir Peter was interviewed within the last two weeks by the Skills Funding Agency, which is looking into the financial performance of the FE college during his time as chief executive.

An investigation by the Department for Education (DfE) was triggered after a whistle-blower made claims around the financial management of the college, which sits at the heart of the chain of free schools and academies.

Allegations have also been made over “grade massaging” at the federation, and the investigation is looking into how the trust “manages its learners”.

The report, which is expected within the coming weeks, could prove to be of further embarrassment to education secretary Michael Gove, who has witnessed a series of problems hit his free-school agenda, such as with Al-Madinah Free School in Derby and King Science Academy in Bradford.

Sir Peter was once heralded by both Mr Gove and prime minister David Cameron after he helped set up and run a free school and several academies during his time as head of the college.

Last year, Mr Gove said of the former head of Barnfield College: "I think Pete (Birkett, the principal) would not just give some independent schools a run for their money, he would out-compete them."

Sir Peter was invited to 10 Downing Street last year, where he was singled out by Mr Gove for the work he was doing at the helm of a chain of academies and free schools. He was knighted for “services to education” back in June 2012.

But after just three months at Gems, Sir Peter announced yesterday that he was stepping down from his role due to the investigation.

"Over the past several weeks the Department for Education investigation of the Barnfield Federation has achieved prominence in the press,” he said in a statement.

“In order that this issue does not become an undue distraction for my colleagues and the work of Gems Education I have decided to resign from my position. Gems have accepted my resignation and I am grateful for their continued support."

Dino Varkey, group chief operating officer at Gems added: "With sadness, we support Peter Birkett’s decision to stand down with immediate effect, as he has requested. We thank him for his hard work and wish him well in the future."

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