Once admired as one of the country's best and most colourful headteachers, Jean Else is now at the centre of a scandal. Graeme Paton reports.
Four years ago, Jean Else was the guest of honour at a celebration marking her rise to the top of the teaching profession.
The head, credited with turning around one of the country's worst schools, was lauded at a This Is Your Life-style party, complete with a taped message from Estelle Morris - her former pupil, and later education secretary - just days after being awarded a damehood.
But this week the celebrations that marked the crowning moment of her career came under intense scrutiny as she was accused of wasting taxpayers'
money and running a school with "a history of nepotism".
In a damning 12-page report, the Audit Commission said Dame Jean, head of Whalley Range high school for girls, in Manchester, used her influence to promote her twin sister to a leading position at the school.
The report also said that a series of "substantial" payments were made to former staff, contracts were signed with a consultant who was a close friend of the head, and parties were thrown at "excessive" expense.
Dame Jean's own pay packet - pound;141,653 at its height - was also queried in the report, which marks the culmination of a three- year investigation by auditors.
It is the latest chapter in the colourful career of a head who had her school toilets painted purple and green, with gold plastic moulds of Grecian maidens.
But Dame Jean, who was suspended on full pay by Manchester council in November last year pending its own disciplinary proceedings, attacked the report, insisting she was the victim of a witch-hunt allegedly driven by an embittered ex-member of staff.
She said: "It has been horrendous. There were all sorts of allegations and very few of them have been proven. They say they have found some faults, but if you spend three years raking over an organisation you are going to find something."
She said the "This Is Your Life" party was a surprise, thrown by the council and school staff.
"How can I be at fault for that?" she said. "I do not accept that the employment of my sister over a 10-year period and her remuneration was wrong.
"The considerable success of the school, which had previously underperformed significantly, was due to our policy of employing the best people in each post, whoever they happened to be.
David Hart, former general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, which represents Dame Jean, said: "The report is a fairly shabby piece of work. What they have managed to do is make an enormous mountain out of a molehill after years and years of investigating."
The report made clear that, despite criticism of financial management, the school was "thriving and successful" and remained highly effective. A number of other allegations were not upheld by the Audit Commission, and it was acknowledged that action had already been taken by the local council to address many faults, including a new pay policy and review of the way it supports schools.
The governing body of the school has also changed significantly in recent years.
Jean Else was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2001 after turning the failing school into one with a national reputation for excellence. In its last inspection in 2003, Ofsted described Dame Jean's leadership as "very strong".
But in this week's 12-page report, Clive Portman, the district auditor, said: "The headteacher has made serious errors of judgement in her dealings with a number of staffing matters, particularly in relation to the role and remuneration of her sister."
He described how Dame Jean's twin Maureen Rochford was initially employed as a part-time clerical assistant in 1995 before being eventually promoted to assistant head on a salary of pound;79,003.
The auditor also said three payments to former caretakers were "contrary to the law". One caretaker received pound;8,900 for recognition of 10 years'
service and a pound;1,300 loan, but only pound;300 was repaid before the balance was written off. A second caretaker was given pound;2,000 after resigning in 2001.
Mr Portman said the payments were "not reasonable and are an inappropriate use of public funds", though he decided not to pursue a prosecution because the cost would "outweigh the public benefit".
The cost of parties thrown by the school was also said to be "excessive".
One, for about 150 people, cost pound;700 and was hosted to celebrate the completion of an internal audit.
Two other parties, costing pound;3,300 in total, were staged to toast the headteacher's damehood, although solicitors acting for the school insisted they were financed from "unofficial funds" raised through voluntary work, not out of the school budget.
Criticism was also reserved for pound;13,200 in consultancy fees paid to a personal friend of the headteacher. According to the report, no tenders were put out for the contract and governors were only informed about pound;9,000 of the final fee.
Mr Portman also questioned Dame Jean's own salary, which rose from Pounds 76,193 in 1999 to pound;138,413 in 2004, peaking at pound;141,653 in 2002-3.
Her pay - described as "high" compared with other Manchester heads - included external work for the council and the Department for Education and Skills.
The auditor recommended that the local council should review the salaries of the headteacher and other senior staff and ordered the governors to review spending at the school.
WHAT THE AUDIT COMMISSION FOUND
* In 2002 the Audit Commission was asked to look at allegations of financial mismanagement and a breakdown of official procedures at Whalley Range school.
* Clive Portman, district auditor, concluded that the school culture "has been lacking in openness and accountability and in my view it is not surprising that allegations of nepotism have been made".
* Payments to two caretakers were deemed to be "contrary to law" and "an inappropriate use of public funds". They included a pound;1,300 loan to secure transport to one caretaker's new job, but only pound;300 was repaid before the balance was written off.
* Three social events were said to be "excessive", including pound;3,300 spent celebrating Dame Jean's knighthood. The school said the cash was raised via voluntary work, but the auditor said money spent by the school should only be for a "proper purpose".
* Consultancy fees of pound;13,200 were paid to a friend of Dame Jean, who admitted not tendering for the work because her friend "had expertise which was recognised nationally".
* Dame Jean's salary, which peaked at pound;141,653 in 2002-3 and was supplemented with extra work for the local council and the Department for Education and Skillls, was said to be high. Auditors said the "decision to allow Dame Jean to receive 100 per cent of all income from external work was not soundly based".
* Her twin, Maureen Rochford, was a clerical assistant promoted to administration manager, finance manager and then assistant head. The report said Dame Jean was guilty of a "conflict of interest" over the appointment.
* Governors were criticised for not performing their role properly and the local council was said to have failed to monitor school spending.