EDUCATION Secretary Michael Gove has been asked whether he has failed to take action against a scandal-hit free school because the vice chairman of the Conservative Party is its landlord and benefactor.
Alan Lewis is executive patron of the Kings Science Academy, in Bradford, and the troubled school has been built on his company’s land in a deal worth almost £6m in rent over 20 years.
His role at the school was raised in Parliament yesterday after a Yorkshire Post exclusive revealed the Department for Education had wrongly believed him to be the chairman of governors at the school for its first year.
The DfE said it was told by the free school that Mr Lewis was the chairman in October 2011 but discovered 12 months later that this was not the case and that in fact the governing body initially had no chairman. Mr Lewis has also said he was never chairman of governors or had responsibility for financial management and governance at the school.
The free school has been at the centre of controversy after a DfE investigation last year found the school had submitted fabricated invoices to the Government to claim public money. A police investigation into the school has been launched.
In Parliament yesterday Shadow Education Minister Kevin Brennan questioned why Mr Gove had not intervened at the school.
“We have had mismanagement, nepotism, we have had fabricated invoices,” he said.
“Mr Lewis is himself not just a benefactor, he is actually a landlord who will receive £12m in rent in years to come for the school as well as being a vice chair of the Conservative Party and a major Tory donor. Is that anything to do with the fact that the Secretary of State has refused to take any action whatsoever against anyone since this scandal broke?”
Mr Gove said: “Mr Lewis is receiving, for this property, an appropriately guaranteed market rent, less than he was receiving beforehand for it.”
The Education Secretary also told MPs his department had contacted Action Fraud – a national fraud reporting centre – after it became aware of the allegations against the free school. He told MPs as a police investigation was now ongoing the law needed to run its course.
When the DfE findings into the school were first published, in October last year, the Kings Science Academy said there had been no misappropriation of public funds and all expenditure had been academy related.
In yesterday’s debate Bradford East’s Liberal Democrat MP David Ward questioned Mr Lewis’s statement that he had no responsibility for financial management and governance of the school, highlighting his role in a report from auditors Crowe Clark Whitehill into the school’s finances.
Mr Ward said: “If, as I have been told, the report by the auditors recommended to the school by Mr Lewis was presented directly to him and amended as a result of his comments, does the Secretary of State agree that that provides evidence of involvement in both financial management and governance within the school?”
Mr Gove did not answer the question but said that the report commissioned by Mr Lewis had played a part in helping to ensure that “Kings Science Academy moved from a difficult position to a better one”.
A spokesman for Mr Lewis declined to comment on the MPs’ questions but disputed the suggestion that his company, the Hartley Group, would receive £12m in rent from the Kings Science Academy deal.
On Saturday the Yorkshire Post revealed that two separate DfE reports gave give differing accounts as to who – if anyone – was leading the governing body in the free school’s first year.
A review of finance and governance at the school said it had no chairman but a draft of a DfE internal audit investigation report into the school says it understood Mr Lewis was chairman of governors between September 2011 and October 2012. The final published version of this report has the name of the person thought to be chairman redacted.
The Hartley Group spokesman earlier told the Yorkshire Post that Mr Lewis had been wrongly listed as chairman of governors on the school’s website but this was immediately rectified when it was brought to his attention.
It also emerged in yesterday’s education questions in Parliament that the Kings Science Academy and two other troubled free schools – Al Madinah in Derby and the Discovery School, in Crawley had all been recommended for opening by civil servants.
Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt and education select committee member Alex Cunningham had both asked questions following the National Audit Office report into free schools last month which revealed that 17 per cent of low scoring applications had been approved by Ministers.
In response Mr Gove said: “The advice from officials was to open the Discovery school.
“It was also the case it was the advice of officials to back Kings Science Academy, and to back Al-Madinah school.
“In all three examples we took the advice of officials – but let me make it clear it is entirely appropriate for Ministers to overrule officials at any given point.
“Officials advise and Ministers decide. But in these three cases we took the advice of officials and appropriate safeguards were in place.”
The Discovery School is due to close in April following inspection failures and a withdrawal of Government funding while the Al-Madinah school in Derby is in special measures after the education watchdog Ofsted labelled it “dysfunctional”.