In the first week of September, the Wakefield Academy Trust (WCAT) announced that they were no longer able “to facilitate the rapid improvement our schools need and our students deserve”. Just two days into a new school term WCAT was declaring its own dissolution and abandoning its 21 schools. But missing from the public statement or the letter to parents was any promise to return the millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money poured into the Trust since it was established in 2013.
In November 2016, the press leaked a DfE report which found 16 breaches of academy finance rules by WCAT. These included the Trust paying its CEO £82,000 for less than 15 weeks work. According to the Times Education Supplement the Trust had been “put in an extremely vulnerable position as a result of inadequate governance, leadership and financial management”. Those are polite and evasive words for the corrupt practices that saw the top people in WCAT rip off the public purse. In common with many academy trusts, huge amounts of money allocated to educating children were spent on buying services from a company owned by the CEO and his family.
£444,000 was paid to private companies owned by interim CEO Mike Ramsay and his daughter. The same man was paid £3,229 in expenses, which included double the normal travel expenses, over a period of only four months. While all this spending was going on the Trust was building up a deficit of over £16 million.
The impact of the implosion has been disastrous. Large numbers of staff have been made redundant, teachers are buying essential equipment out of their own pockets, GCSE pupils are doing written work on the back of work done by last year’s classes. The most serious part of the scandal is the asset-stripping of the individual schools by the central Trust.
In advance of its dissolution WCAT forced its schools to hand over millions of pounds in what were described as loans. This included just under half a million from Hemsworth Academy, £300,000 from Heath Primary in Wakefield and £800,000 from Wakefield City Academy. Much of this money was raised by parents in hard-pressed local communities in fund-raising events. WCAT has no intention of paying back these “loans”. They are likely to get away with this scam.
There has been an angry and determined response from local communities. On 19 October a big audience in Doncaster was addressed by National Education General Secretary, Kevin Courtney and others. Parents are demanding the schools be brought back into LA control. That is absolutely the right demand, not only for WCAT but for all academy trusts.
Unfortunately, that isn’t what will happen to these schools. The DfE and the Regional Schools Commissioner are now “rebrokering” the schools with other local multi-academy trusts (MATs). The main beneficiaries will be two MATs who have had their own financial embarrassments involving their own lucratively-paid CEOs in recent years (Outwood Grange and Delta). There is currently no legal provision which could bring academy schools back into the local authority system. That can and must change.
The lack of accountability and transparency which cause and encourage this corruption is endemic to the entire academy programme. One of the most disappointing things about the great revival of the left marked by so-called “Corbynism” is the failure of Labour to commit to bringing academies back into the local authority system. That would be tremendously popular in some of Labour’s traditional working class heartlands.