An academy chain whose financial management was heavily criticised by regulators following an investigation by the Observer is facing a mass walkout of teachers at one of its schools, and demands from the local mayor to “call it a day”.
The staff body at Whitehaven academy in Cumbria have written an open letter to political leaders in the area, the second in a week, declaring of the Bright Tribe academy chain: “We are unable to improve the school if it remains with the trust.” Whitehaven has had six headteachers and been placed in special measures since the Bright Tribe charitable trust took over in 2014.
Last week all 70 staff signed a letter threatening strike action if the trust is not gone by 13 December. The trust responded with its own letter defending its record in investing in the school, claiming much of it was “invisible” but that £400,000 had been spent.
It blamed historical failures for the academy’s Ofsted rating along with the poor state of its buildings and demanded that staff “take stock of the facts”.
Now a second letter from the staff has accused the trust of taking too much of the school’s central government funding and preventing it from ensuring improvement works were “cost-effective” by giving contracts to a firm, Blue Support Services, owned by the man who leads the trust, Mike Dwan.
The letter says: “This conflict of interest, in our views, means that the academy has been unable to tender for works completed to ensure the most cost-effective deal, so any reference to any amount spent to improve the school is totally irrelevant.
“We would suggest that significant improvements could be made to the condition of the building if the trust did not levy a 9% top slice on us. The trust takes 9% of all the academy’s income, which is more than most other trusts, who take between 3 and 6%.
“Just think what improvements could be made with this money. The trust states that £400,000 has been spent improving the school. It fails to mention the significant amount that it takes out.”
Mike Starkie, the independent mayor of Copeland, the west Cumbria district, joined calls for the government to transfer the school to another chain. He said: “It’s time Bright Tribe called it a day. There’s been a complete breakdown in trust and confidence in Bright Tribe, and it really is time to get them to go.”
Bright Tribe runs 12 schools and was recently awarded part of a £5m grant – to fund its expansion in the north – as part of a drive to raise educational standards.
In June the Observer published an investigation revealing unexplained discrepancies in the trust’s accounts involving “related companies” that were providing services for large fees to the chain’s schools.
The Education Funding Agency published a report last month criticising Bright Tribe’s governance and procedures in selecting the companies that would receive taxpayers’ cash, a number of which were run by the man running the trust.
A spokesman for Bright Tribe said that all services provided were “in compliance with the Academies Financial Handbook, were provided at cost or less and audited, and the accounts of the trust correctly reflect this”.
With regard to Whitehaven, the spokesman added: “The condition of the buildings is not in dispute but we inherited at least a decade of decline and mismanagement. This is not Bright Tribe’s fault and it is something we will continue to try to do something about.
“The trust charges a 5% central charge. Other charges are levied for other services. This has always been the case. We absolutely refute that any profit has ever been made by Mr Dwan or any of his companies.
“The evidence as stated in the accounts clearly shows the reverse, with contributions of £2.6m made directly and indirectly by Mr Dwan to Bright Tribe Trust.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are aware of issues at Whitehaven academy and the regional schools commissioner is working with Bright Tribe to address historic challenges of underperformance. The trust is taking action to ensure urgent improvements are made and we will be closely monitoring its progress. If we are not satisfied with these improvements then further action will be taken.”
A spokesman added that the trust had enacted some of the recommendations from the EFA, but added: “More work needs to be done.”