THE fraud convictions and jail sentences at the Kings Science Academy are a damning indictment on the way the Government launched its free school policy.
A police investigation and a trial jury concluded that tens of thousands of pounds of public money meant for the education of children had been paid into personal bank accounts.
Three members of staff including the school’s founder and former principal Sajid Hussain Raza, who was famously photographed with David Cameron and praised by the then Prime Minister, have been jailed as a result.
But the conclusion of the trial should not mark the end of the scandal.
Rather it should be the beginning of proper scrutiny of exactly what happened, not only in Bradford, but also in Westminster and Whitehall.
If it was front page news that fraud was being investigated by police inside one of the country’s first free schools, then surely what is even more concerning is that this fraud at the Kings Science Academy was not investigated for six months.
This was despite the allegation of crime having been clearly identified by the Department for Education’s own audit.
Investigations by this newspaper suggest there could be a scandal within the scandal.
The Government found fraud at one of its first free schools, but did not see to it that the police investigated this crime.
Not only this but when the DfE was told there would be no police investigation, it did nothing to rectify the situation.
It was only when the lack of probity became public knowledge, and only then because the DfE’s own audit was leaked, that people started to ask questions and the case was passed to West Yorkshire Police.
Opponents of free schools and academies will use this case to ask whether the Government has sufficient oversight of how the thousands of autonomous schools are being run – and how money is being spent within them.
If Ministers have their way, there will be even more such schools in the future.
But the bigger, broader questions should not detract from the importance of the details of this case also being looked at. There needs to be scrutiny of the Government’s explanation as to why fraud at the school had been filed away and not investigated by the police until the matter was leaked into the public domain.
“A flagship project”, like” iconic” or “ground-breaking”, are words often used by journalists to make something seem more than it is.
But the Kings Science Academy was genuinely a flagship free school.
Visited and praised by Mr Cameron in March 2012, and hailed in the national press as being the closest thing to his Big Society vision of what a free school should be, Raza was a young school leader, a Bradford-born Oxbridge graduate with a vision to provide an academic education to children in his home city
Not only this, but the school had links to the then vice chairman of the Conservative Party and was built on his land. It was a high profile project.
Against this background, some former Bradford MPs suggest the reason there was no police investigation for months was because it was not in the political interests of the Government of the day for this embarrassing matter to come to light.
MPs argued the Government would not have wanted one of its first free schools to become publicly mired in a fraud scandal.
At this stage, we can’t draw any conclusions about exactly what happened because there are too many unanswered questions.
The official explanation for why there was no police investigation for so long is as follows.
The DfE reported the matter with a phone call to Action Fraud, a call centre which handles financial crimes. Action Fraud receives calls and passes them on to the City of London Police’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau) as either crime or information reports. From there, the criminal cases are passed on to local forces.
Calls are classed as information reports “where there may not have been a fraud committed, but there is suspicion of criminal intent”. These reports are unlikely to lead to criminal investigations.
Somehow this is was what happened in the Kings case. The findings of a Government report, which said in black and white that invoices had been fabricated by a school, were treated as being an information matter only. Filed away.
The DfE reported the matter through the correct channels. This was Action Fraud’s mistake and they apologised to the DfE.
But questions remain:
How did this happen?
Was it a clerical error or did someone misunderstand what they were told?
What did the DfE actually tell Action Fraud in the phone call?
Why did the DfE only report the matter on the phone when it had a detailed written audit report?
Why did it wait six months to ask for an update on the case?
When the scandal broke on the Friday afternoon of October 25, 2013, and the DfE published a redacted version of its investigation report, two things stood out.
Firstly, a paragraph in the report which said someone at the school had admitted invoices had been fabricated.
Secondly, a line in the accompanying DfE press statement which said they had informed police who decided to take no further action. How could it be that a fraud of this type was worth no further action?
The explanation offered a few days later by the Home Office and the DfE was that the matter had mistakenly treated as being information only. This mistake was said to have only to come to light after the scandal broke. It sounded like the case had somehow just got lost in the system.
But this was not the case.
Documents obtained by The Yorkshire Post show the DfE, having reported the matter in April 2013, asked for an update on the case in September.
They were told – six weeks before the scandal broke – that the matter had been filed as an information report, not as a crime.
Action Fraud told the DfE in an email exchange there would be no police investigation unless more information was provided and the matter was reported as a crime report.
The DfE did nothing to rectify this. Six weeks later when news of the fraud leaked out, the DfE announced that police decided no further action was necessary. In fact the department was told the case had not been looked at for criminal investigation. It had been treated as being for information only.
Put simply, the DfE knew allegations of fraud at a free school existed, were told a criminal investigation into this had not taken place and nothing was done to change this until the matter leaked.
The response to the Kings Science Academy scandal should not just about the actions of individuals in one Bradford school.
It should also be about the Government being accountable to the public.
I hope these questions can be raised by people who are in a position to insist on answers.
John Roberts is The Yorkshire Post’s education correspondent.