Under-fire academy paid nearly £80,000 to law firm

Outwood Grange Academy, Outwood, Wakefield.

Outwood Grange Academy, Outwood, Wakefield.

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A CONTROVERSIAL academy paid an international corporate law firm almost £80,000 to handle its Press inquiries and freedom of information requests – the equivalent of paying the annual salaries of three trainee teachers.

The payments by Outwood Grange, previously revealed to be paying its “superhead” more than £190,000 a year, included significant amounts spent on trying to stop the information becoming public.

The Wakefield-based academy paid the money to Addleshaw Goddard, a law firm with offices in Dubai and Singapore as well as UK bases including Leeds which handled the school’s account.

The school has now said it is reviewing its policy – a move welcomed by local Labour MP Ed Balls.

The spending began in January 2011 when academies became subject to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. Outwood already employed a solicitor as its legal officer but chose to refer all Press inquiries and FOI requests to Addleshaw Goddard.

As a result, the school ran up a bill of £79,865 between January 2011 and September this year, including individual payments of up to £1,539.

After initially providing a total for spending with the firm up to April last year, Outwood refused to provide updated figures after further FOI requests by the Yorkshire Post.

In June this year, the Information Commissioner ruled the academy should provide the full total but Outwood refused and began tribunal proceedings to try to overturn the decision.

The legal action was only withdrawn when a judge told the academy its case had no chance of succeeding. All the attempts to block disclosure involved further payments being made to the law firm.

Outwood declined to reveal its legal spending in the wake of a Yorkshire Post investigation last year into how the academy obtained millions of pounds in public money and paid its superhead, Michael Wilkins, an average of more than £190,000 a year.

The investigation, which included FOI requests to Outwood and other public bodies, showed the school raked in almost £3.4m over four years from Doncaster, North Yorkshire and Stockton councils to second Outwood staff to struggling schools.

The work, which generated around £1m profit for Outwood, was carried out through the National Leaders of Education programme, which enables high-performing headteachers like Mr Wilkins to takeover the running of failing or struggling schools.

More than £750,000 was paid directly to Mr Wilkins through both his salary – which rose from £105,000 to £182,000 – and a further £148,000 paid to the head’s personal consultancy firm.

A Wakefield Council audit, which concluded last year after beginning shortly before Outwood became an autonomous academy in 2009, criticised the payments to Mr Wilkins’s firm.

It also criticised Outwood for an excessive staff rewards culture involving spending on overseas trips, hotels and meals out.

Outwood defended its actions and rejected the audit’s findings.

Commenting on the legal spending, Katy Williams, Outwood’s Director of Business Services, said: “As a public body we would never spend public money unnecessarily. We are always disappointed when any monies are diverted away from our primary focus of education.

“We sought advice from a law firm who had expertise in the field of FOI and charities, such as ourselves, to ensure that we did not release any information that we could then find, subsequently, we should not have done. We followed the advice of this law firm at all times in dealing with FOI requests.

“The Trust is reviewing its policy on handling FOI requests in the future to avoid any further spend on this area.”

Ed Balls, MP for Morley and Outwood, praised the educational performance of the school but added: “All public bodies need to ensure they can comply with FOI requests whilst also giving value for money for taxpayers. It’s right the school is now reviewing their policy.”

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