Opposition MPs have pointed to the scandal surrounding a flagship Yorkshire school as a sign that “the wheels were coming off” the Government’s free school programme.
A Government Minister faced a raft of questions about its handling of the case at the Kings Science Academy in Bradford from both Shadow Education Minister Kevin Brennan and Liberal Democrat MP David Ward during a Parliamentary debate into oversight of free schools yesterday.
The secondary school, which opened in 2011, has been in the spotlight since the Department for Education released a report last month which revealed that someone at Kings had admitted that fabricated invoices had been submitted to the Government to claim public money.
The audit report also identified £86,335 of a lead-in grant of £182,933 given to the school to help it open which had not been spent on the purpose for which it was intended. The report recommended that the matter be passed to the police and that the DfE consider recovering the overpaid grant.
When the DfE published this report it released a statement which said the matter had been reported to the police “who decided no further action was necessary”.
However, it has since emerged that when the DfE reported the matter with a phone call to Action Fraud – the UK’s national fraud reporting centre – in April a recording error meant that it was only passed on to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau as an information report rather than as a potential crime. This meant that no police investigation took place for about six months after the DfE first reported it.
After the DfE report was published West Yorkshire Police was passed the case and is now investigating. Three people have been interviewed under caution in relation to the matter.
Now the case has come under fresh scrutiny during a debate into the oversight of free schools. Mr Brennan said: “The DfE says that in September it contacted Action Fraud to ask for an update and was told by the police that there was nothing more to be done. Why at that stage did the Department not ask more questions? Why did it not dig and find out that there had been an administrative error? We need to understand why it did not do so. It has now emerged that the DfE did not even submit the report to Action Fraud. It simply made a telephone call to the helpline.”
Mr Brennan also questioned the department’s ability to be able to hold free schools to account.
He added: “Ministers are hopelessly conflicted about the policy. How can a Minister be both a promoter of free schools and an adjudicator on them? That is the situation now. How can the Secretary of State be both propagandist for his free schools experimental policy and overseer of that policy at the same time?”
Mr Brennan also highlighted a statement by Education Secretary Michael Gove’s former adviser Dominic Cummings who said that some free schools “will fail and have predictable disasters from disastrous teaching to financial fraud”.
During the debate, MPs warned that the problems at the Kings Science Academy had only come to light because of a whistleblower.
Bradford East MP Mr Ward said: “My great concern is that the oversight is not wanted, because were it in place, it would ask the awkward questions that people do not want to answer. How many more schools are like the one I have been talking about? Are we talking about the tip of an iceberg?”
He asked a series of questions to Education Minister Edward Timpson including whether it was acceptable that “when the DFE was questioned about what action it intended to take following the publication of the report, the Department replied that the school had launched its own investigation and that any disciplinary action was a matter for the school”.
Mr Timpson did not answer specific questions about Kings during the debate but did defend the scrutiny faced by free schools.
He said: “For free schools, the need to demonstrate educational and financial rigour starts from the very moment when they submit an application to open a school. Every application is assessed against rigorous, published criteria. Free school proposers need to show how their school will drive up standards for all pupils as well as demonstrating financial resilience. The criteria also cover governance”.
He said the Government was not afraid to cancel or defer projects if it did not think the new school would provide the “very best for its pupils”.