The DfE attempted to suppress the fact that an academy trust it wanted to take over a school had been under investigation for payments it made to its directors.
The case is one of a series of revelations about secret inner workings of the academies programme that the Department for Education was only persuaded to disclose after an intervention by the Information Commissioner.
They have reignited calls for more transparency about how the eight headteacher boards (HTBs), which help make decisions about schools across England, operate.
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: “This raises serious questions about whether they have deliberately tried to hide information from the public, including the parents whose children’s education is at stake. We need full transparency now, and that is what we will be pushing for in Parliament.”
The case emerged through previously censored papers from the 10 September 2015 meeting of the HTB for the East of England and north-east London.
They show details of proposals for the Elliot Foundation Academy Trust to sponsor Millfield Primary School in Cambridgeshire.
A section about the sponsor, headed “issues”, was originally completely censored, but now Tes can reveal that it outlined details of a probe into the trust.
The papers say: “Over the last few months, the EFA [Education Funding Agency] has been conducting an investigation into the governance structures at Elliot and payments to directors. The EFA has now indicated that it will not be issuing an FNTI [financial notice to improve]. Elliot accepts that mistakes were made in 2012-13 and has made all the changes required.”
In a separate section headed "overall financial and governance summary", information that was originally redacted says: “Several material governance/regularity issues noted. Although it does appear the MAT has implemented the recommendations made by the author.”
In its 2013-14 accounts, the trust’s chief executive Hugh Greenway said there had been “a number of procurement issues identified regarding non-compliance of our financial regulations, which we are investigating to understand their scale and quantum”.
In the following year’s accounts, he said these “potential procurement irregularities” had “all now been investigated and cleared and no further action is required”.
Speaking to Tes, he said: “There was a risk review. Coming out of that risk review, we conducted a full external governance review and implemented its recommendations in full, and were entirely exonerated as a result.”
The proposal for Elliot to sponsor Millfield Primary was approved, and it joined the trust in December 2015.
The revelation of previously censored material has led school leaders to call for greater transparency about the headteacher boards.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told Tes: “We think that information should generally be in the public domain unless there is a compelling reason not to do so.
"It is surely in the interests of both the DfE and communities for there to be a greater level of transparency in the records of meetings.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Where information is withheld under the FOI Act an explanation of the exemption cited is provided. Following an appeal, this case was reviewed and the sensitivity of the information in scope was reassessed.”