Retaliation against whistleblowers who raise concerns about wrongdoing in academies is “exceedingly common”, the House of Lords has been told.
The claim was made after academies minister Lord Agnew was asked about an academy principal who was banned from teaching and jailed after using school funds to create a “sex dungeon” alongside his office.
Liberal Democrat peer and former minister Baroness Kramer this afternoon called on the government to consider improving the situation of those who raise concerns.
Speaking during a short debate about the auditing of academy trusts, she said: “Wrongdoing or abuse and mistakes are almost always exposed by whistleblowers rather than by any official monitoring mechanism.
“From my work with the APPG [All-Party Parliamentary Group] on whistleblowers, it is very evident that in this area whistleblowers rarely know who they can safely complain to, safely report to [and] retaliation is exceedingly common.
“Would he make some effort to look across this field and see if there can be real improvements because it’s the whistleblowers that are helping to keep the system clean?”
Lord Agnew acknowledged that whistleblowers “do play an important part in the regulation of the system”, but added that this was “not the whole story at all”.
He said the Department for Education also relies on external audit reports and issues financial notices to improve when there is wrongdoing.
However, he added: “I am very happy to look into whistleblowing procedures to ensure that we are protecting their interests when they are used.”
The exchanges came two weeks after the DfE updated the Academies Financial Handbook to include stronger wording about whistleblowers.
Earlier in today’s debate, Liberal Democrat education spokesperson and former primary headteacher Lord Storey raised media reports about an academy head who “established a love nest in his office”.
He said this went on for a number of years but “was not picked up by any audit or inspection. It was a whistleblower who shone a light on what was happening.”
Lord Agnew responded that he was “not familiar with the love-nest situation”, but said the scrutiny of the sector was “very robust”.
Former Labour education secretary Lord Blunkett recalled that he and Lord Agnew had in the past told MPs that “there wasn’t sufficient capacity in the system to oversee the present structure”.
He urged him to speak to education secretary Damian Hinds and “insist that there should be another look at just how we hold to account our academies and schools”.
Lord Agnew said “a great deal of work has been done since then”, including rewriting the Academies Financial Handbook.