It started with a drink ... how the story unfolded

21st April 2006 at 01:00
It was a few seemingly careless comments to a pretty blonde after drinks in a hotel's champagne bar that eventually landed headteacher Des Smith in the back of an unmarked police car.

Until he was taped by an undercover reporter, Mr Smith was known only as the respected head of All Saints Catholic school and technology college in Dagenham.

The 60-year-old, who was questioned by police last week, has been credited with turning round the fortunes of the London school during 20 years at its helm. Inspectors described his leadership as "clear and focused" when they visited three years ago. But they also suggested the school had made misleadingly positive claims in its prospectus about its PE, music and languages departments. "The headteacher maintains that most schools use hyperbole to exaggerate their curriculum offer," the inspector said.

It was exaggeration of a different kind that seems to have put Mr Smith at the centre of the cash-for-honours scandal. An undercover reporter from the Sunday Times contacted the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in November, posing as an assistant to an entrepreneur who wished to sponsor an academy. Sir Cyril Taylor, the trust's chairman, invited her to a dinner for sponsors at a private club in Belgravia, where he introduced her to Mr Smith, who was then one of a dozen heads on the trust's 40-member council.

Mr Smith invited the 24-year-old reporter to a champagne bar at Liverpool Street where he boasted about his visits to Downing Street and suggested he could introduce her to Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary. The two later met at a restaurant on Bond Street, and then again in January at a champagne bar inside the Great Eastern hotel at Liverpool Street. After drinking wine, they ate at a restaurant at the hotel, where the reporter asked about sponsors receiving honours. Mr Smith is alleged to have replied: "Basically ... the Prime Minister's office would recommend someone like (the fictional sponsor) for an OBE, a CBE or a knighthood.

"But also, what would be great is, you could go to the House of Lords and (...)become a lord."

Mr Smith also allegedly referred to David Miliband, the local government minister who was previously minister for school standards, as his "mate"

and said he would be a good contact if the sponsor wanted a knighthood.

The head resigned from the trust's council the day after the Sunday Times's story was published in January, saying he was "naive" and "desperately sorry".

Complaints by a former policeman and an SNP politician later led police to investigate whether Mr Smith had been involved in trading honours for favours in contravention of the law.

Almost three months to the day after the fateful supper at the Great Eastern hotel, two policemen arrived at Mr Smith's home in Wanstead and took him to Redbridge police station.

Speculation was rife this week that police might also question Lord Levy, the Prime Minister's chief political fundraiser, who is president of the trust, and Lord Adonis, the education minister closest to the academies policy.

* michael.shaw@tes.co.uk

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