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More bad news for the free school agenda: DfE investigates Barnfield Federation over finances

The Department for Education has confirmed it is investigating a federation of free schools and academies run by a FE college over allegations of financial mismanagement.

The Barnfield Federation is being probed by the Skills Funding Agency after a whilsteblower made claims about the financial management of the Luton-based Barnfield College, which sits at the heart of the chain of schools.

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

However, TES understands the inquiry is focusing mainly on the college’s financial performance while under the stewardship of Sir Peter Birkett (pictured), who, as director general of the federation, was praised by both education secretary Michael Gove and prime minister David Cameron. 

Last year Mr Gove said of the 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 even 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. Sir Peter resigned from his role at the federation in July and his since taken a role at Gems, an international chain of private schools.

In a statement, Sir Peter said he had learnt of the DfE audit “through the media”, adding he was not aware of the “purpose or scope” of the investigation.

“What I can say is that when I moved on from Barnfield as director general of the whole Barnfield Federation it was reported to me that the interim results were the highest ever, there were healthy financial reserves and the staffing reshaping of the college would place the organisation in a solid position moving forward,” he said.

While the performance of the academies and free school at the chain has been widely praised, the college itself has seen its outstanding rating downgraded to satisfactory by Ofsted inspectors.

The news that Barnfield is being investigated will be of further embarrassment to the education secretary as it follows a rash of investigations into state independent schools, most notably the Muslim Al-Madinah Free School in Derby and more recently the King Science Academy in Bradford.

Earlier this year, the Education Funding Agency was called in to examine the accounts of the E-Act academy chain, which revealed a culture of “extravagant” expenses and the spending of hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on unapproved consultancy fees.

Two interim chief executives have since been parachuted in to run the Barnfield federation, and are cooperating with the investigation.

A spokesperson for the trust said: “This audit is about what's happened in the past and we are fully engaged with it to ensure that we learn lessons for the future.

“Meanwhile, our focus continues to be on our students, parents and staff. They are our priority always; and we are re-shaping Barnfield to ensure that we provide excellent education. That's what the future is about.”

A DfE spokesperson told TES: “The Department for Education and the Skills Funding Agency have received allegations relating to Barnfield College and the Barnfield Federation. We are taking these seriously and are investigating.”

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