Inquiry '˜must be held' into collapse of crisis-hit trust

An independent inquiry must be held into the demise of a crisis-hit academy trust, union leaders have warned, as accusations are levelled at government agencies over their responsibility for its collapse.

Figures from the Department for Education has shown how many children in Sheffield missed classes

The Wakefield City Academy Trust (WCAT), which ran 21 schools across Yorkshire, made a shock announcement last September that it was seeking new trusts to run its schools, a new board concluding it was not able to bring about improvements its students deserved.

Reviews of the trust’s financial management and governance, dating as far back as 2015, were published this week by the Department for Education, revealing the Education and Skills Funding Agency (Esfa) had raised “urgent” concerns more than a year before its collapse. Union leaders and MPs have now questioned whether the crisis could have been averted.

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The publication of the reports, three years after WCAT was first investigated, said Kevin Courtney of the National Education Union, underlines a “lack of transparency and accountability of the academy programme”.

“The reports themselves highlight the abject failure of the DfE and the ESFA to oversee academy trusts,” said Mr Courtney, the union’s joint general secretary. “It is clear the catastrophic failures of WCAT were not recognised by the ESFA despite evidence building up that ultimately led to the trust’s collapse in 2017.

“The DfE and its agencies are ultimately responsible for the collapse of WCAT and other high-profile academy trust failures. There needs to be an independent inquiry and resolve to learn the lessons of their own failures.”

A report on the trust in 2016 found that 16 breaches had been made, concluding it was “extremely vulnerable” as a result of “inadequate” governance, leadership and overall financial management. The board had failed to ensure good financial management or agree a balanced budget, the review found. No chief financial officer had been appointed, while there was no formally appointed accounting officer in place.

Furthermore, it emerged the trust’s interim chief executive had been paid more than £80,000 for less than four months of work, reviewers querying the “prudency” of such a move, while the intention of board members had been to offer him an ‘off-payroll’ contract. Crucially, it has now emerged that the trust, later accused of asset-stripping, had been advised by the Government to pool its surplus into a central fund.

A spokesman for WCAT this week stressed that a new board, appointed in July 2016, had acknowledged the issues highlighted in the reports and taken action to resolve concerns. The trust’s accounts had received a clean audit, he said, while upcoming ones are expected to show a surplus.

But the board had also overseen a review of the trust’s “educational outputs”, and accepted in September 2017 that it did “not have the capacity to facilitate rapid improvement of its academies”.

Hemsworth MP Jon Trickett, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “These damning reports reveal what parents and teachers knew almost from the start – WCAT was crashing down around them. Had the Government published the reports when they were first written, and not years later, perhaps they would have been listened to and this crisis could have been averted.

“Instead, the education of children in our area has been severely disrupted and questions remain as to who is actually monitoring academies and whether there will be another collapse on this scale. For, while WCAT was partly a failure of individuals, it was made possible by serious defects in the academy system, which was doomed to fail from the start.”

Academy scrutiny has “significantly” increased since the trust’s demise, the Department for Eduction stressed as the reports were published.

Recommendations, and the appointment of a new board, had resulted in the trust immediately implementing actions to resolve issues, it said. Learning from WCAT, the DfE added, oversight and scrutiny of academy trusts’ performance and financial reporting had significantly increased, and the department will continue to improve and invest in intervention and preventative activity.

“Our objective is to provide a more robust accountability framework to minimise the risks of future trust failure to the greatest possible extent.”