THE SCANDAL at a Yorkshire free school being investigated over alleged fraud shows the Government is failing to ensure money is being spent properly in the flagship programme, a scathing report by MPs has said.
The powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has highlighted events at the Kings Science Academy in Bradford as a sign that Michael Gove’s department does not have a clear view of how taxpayers’ money is being spent and is too reliant on whistleblowers to expose problems.
The secondary school, which opened in 2011, has been at the centre of a major controversy after allegations emerged that it had submitted fabricated invoices to claim just over £10,000 in public money from the Department for Education (DfE).
The findings of a DfE audit report into the school were only properly passed to police six months after the department first attempted to report them and only after they were leaked to the media. This left the Government facing questions over why it failed to ensure the matter was subject to a criminal investigation for so long.
Earlier this year, West Yorkshire Police arrested the school’s principal, Sajid Raza, who has been released on bail. A new interim head teacher is currently in place.
PAC chairman, Labour MP Margaret Hodge, said the high-profile failure at the school “demonstrates” the DfE and Education Funding Agency’s (EFA) oversight arrangements for free schools are not yet working effectively.
She said the Government needs to improve its systems for scrutinising free schools “so that we can follow the taxpayer’s pound and satisfy ourselves that public money is being used appropriately”.
The PAC report published today said the EFA had “acknowledged that arrangements in place for reporting fraud had not been wholly satisfactory”, and that it had since reviewed them. The PAC also highlighted “uncertainty over who held key positions” at the school as a sign that there had been clear defects in governance.
This follows The Yorkshire Post revealing that the Government said it had been wrongly told by the school that Alan Lewis, a vice chairman of the Conservative Party, had been the chairman of governors for the first 12 months.
However, Mr Lewis, who is the school’s executive patron, has repeatedly denied this and the DfE has said that in fact the school had no chairman for its first year.
The PAC say the Government has made “clear progress” on the free school programme – which is a key part of its education policy – by opening new schools quickly. However, it says there have been no bids to open primary free schools in areas that have a high or severe need for places. It is also concerned about the rising capital costs.
A DfE spokesman said: “Many of the PAC’s concerns are misplaced. Free schools are subject to greater scrutiny than council-run schools, they are overwhelmingly located in areas with a shortage of places, and construction costs are 45 per cent lower than the previous school building programmes.”