After Wakefield: 'Questions must now be asked about whether the whole model of academies and multi-academy trusts is broken'

'When running publicly funded schools becomes an opportunity for business people to make private financial gains, then something has gone badly wrong' – one MP reflects on the WCAT scandal

Jon Trickett

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Wakefield Council has called for the police to investigate the collapsed Wakefield City Academy Trust (WCAT), which brings together 21 schools, five in my constituency.

I am not surprised. Weeks ago, I asked the National Audit Office to begin an investigation into how WCAT was run. They are in the process of doing so. And some disturbing facts are beginning to emerge.

This week, I and two colleagues met the secretary of state to discuss the issues raised. Justine Greening wanted only to talk about what happens next.

Obviously, the future education of the children is important, as is that of the schools and staff. But I was determined that we equally addressed what happened in WCAT because it exposes systemic problems in our education system.

Deserving better than WCAT

Education is precious, particularly so in areas like mine. I represent some of the poorest communities in Britain and my area deserves better from trusts like WCAT. Education has been a ladder out of poverty for many people, including myself, but at present, that opportunity is not being afforded to local children in working-class areas like mine.

The ignorance of the government towards the lives and experiences of local people is no better exemplified than when it was decided that a consultation with the community to decide on “rebrokering” the schools into new trusts would be held miles away in Outwood Grange Academy. Many people do not have cars and the public transport they have to rely on is dilapidated and under-invested. Most parents could not attend.

Also, isn’t “rebrokering” sponsorship with new trusts without investigating what went wrong with WCAT just sweeping the whole problem under the carpet?

Despite repeated warnings, including from their own secret investigation, the Department for Education failed to act until it was too late.

Cover-ups and secrecy

What has slowly emerged is a picture of financial mismanagement, failing education standards and a swirling pit of vested interests. But because of cover-ups and a culture of secrecy, we still don’t have the full story.

What is certain is that WCAT suffered a gross failure of governance. This was confirmed by two official reports written in the last 18 months, parts of which have been leaked in the media.

Eventually, the government accepted that the game was up for WCAT and three days into the new school year, they announced that they had failed.

Following further scrutiny, it now turns out that one in three academies throughout the country have contracts with suppliers with whom someone within the trust has a relationship. In part, this was at the core of the problems facing WCAT.

Justine Greening’s response to me was that she has introduced new transparency rules so that everyone can be aware of what is happening in such cases. But in WCAT, these rules did nothing to prevent serious financial irregularity. For example, for a whole year, the governing body’s audit committee never met, even though the rules say that it should meet at least four times per year.

Not an isolated case

What use is transparency in this case? It as if we are standing outside the office window looking passively inwards while the finance director continues to issue payments to a third party company that he owns.

The truth is that the poor governance of the trust, its inappropriate management and financial irregularities, were such that questions now have to be asked as to whether the whole model of academies and of multi-academy trusts is broken and needs major adjustment. Past academy failures, most notably of the Barnfield Federation in 2013, indicate WCAT is not an isolated case.

Equally disturbing is the so-called “rebrokering” of the schools within a failing multi-academy trust. Seen close up, it is evident that it is disastrous to attempt to impose a model based on high finance and competition drawn from the business sector upon a publicly funded system of children’s education.

When running publicly funded schools becomes an opportunity for business people to make private financial gains, then something has gone badly wrong.

Urgent debate needed

With this model, it appears that the government are pouring water into a bucket full of holes. When I asked the DfE what happened to the £500,000 given to WCAT in 2015 as part of the government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative, they all but admitted they didn’t know.

Rigorous work is being done on these and related matters by the shadow education team, led by Angela Rayner.

We need an urgent debate about all this. Should academies be prevented from trading with related party companies? Why it is that the regional schools commissioners and the department were aware of problems at WCAT but failed to intervene early enough? How can it be right that the RSC who oversaw all of this is now in charge of the rebrokering and how can we have confidence in them and their capacity to conduct proper oversight? And why is it that the one local democratically accountable institution in the area – the local council – is effectively excluded from active engagement?

Jon Trickett is shadow minister for the cabinet office and shadow lord president of the council

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