A summary of the Barnfield investigation findings and background

The Investigation

The BBC 3 Counties radio reporter Paul Scoins gained a leaked version of the Skills Funding Agency report and broadcast the findings on the morning of February 18th with a follow up story on the BBC website.

Mr Scoins had earlier reported on the testimony (given with condition of anonymity) of ex teachers at the Federation’s Academies which accused Senior Managers of pressuring teaching staff to spoon fee students.

In the interim before the full reports publication, the Federation appointed Dame Jackie Fisher as interim CEO.

The actual Education Funding Agency report was released on the 28th February (a Friday) after Hertfordshire police confirmed they would not be investigating the findings and detailed the following misdemeanors:

  • Financial reports of the Academies were not submitted in time or individually as required
  • Annual General Meetings were not held in a suitable timeframe
  • There was no formal Service Level Agreement that formally agreed the shared services between the Federation company specifically set up to do this and it’s Academies and that the total cost of these services, some £3.5m of the Academies budgets in 13/14 was not considered value for money and set at above market rates. The overpay of £725,000 has been credited back to the Academies from the College but, as this agreement was in place for many years, a considerable sum was probably overpaid for these services
  • There were conflicts of interest in procurement of services from companies outside the Federation
  • That the College had claimed £18,144.97 from the EFA for short courses attended by Sixth Form students from the Barnfield Academies which should have been claimed (and now will be) from the Academies
  • The College had claimed £941,000 for learners in both the Adults skills and 16-18 provision which it could not prove attended the guided learning hours stipulated
  • That the 3 support companies set up by the Federation to oversee the Colleges and the Academy’s (Barnfield Education Partnership Trust, Barnfield Acadmies Trust and Barnfield Education Services) were complex enough to lead to conflict of interests, increased salaries for Board members without proper oversight or approval from the correct committee and breaches of Charity regulation
  • Marble plaques totaling £2,124 where purchased for each Academy to commemorate the Knighting of the Director General
  • Plaques totaling £5,790 were purchased by each Academy after the resignation of the Director General in May 2013
  • An annual staff celebration event was held costing £20,000 in 2013 and £25,000 in 2011/12 with £7,200 of these costs recouped from private sponsorship. A total of £3,127 was spent on alcohol at these events.
  • That credit cards for staff to use had a cost of “between £5,000 and £17,000 a month.”
  • The College was potentially attempting to manipulate success rates (para 81) which will be raised with Ofsted for further clarification
  •  That the College will also need to pay back £350,000 to the Skills Funding Agency of which £40,000 relates to College staff taking courses that should not have been claimed for
  • That, on resigning, the Director General was given an Audi Q5, a months holiday pay and two (undisclosed) cash sums which he neither requested or was contractually obligated to

Overall it concluded the “review has found evidence of significant financial irregularity together with breaches of the Academies Financial Handbook, the Funding Agreement, Charity Commission regulation and the Companies Act 2006.”

The KPMG investigation report was also released. In addition to the above it noted:

  • The College posted a deficit of £7.3m at the end of the 2013 financial year
  • £450,000 was lost with the closing of the Harpenden Hair Academy site
  • Construction and enabling works to the New Bedford Road site have been halted thus incurring a write down of £800,000

On the same day, Sir Peter released a statement in response to the findings.

Going Forward

Also on the 28th were released 3 financial notice to improve letters, one to the Barnfield Academies Trust, one to Moorlands Free School and one to the Barnfield Skills Academy Trust each with their own requirements to improve, timescales by which to submit plans and notification of further EFA visits to check progress.

The final piece of the paperwork jigsaw was a summary letter from Lord Nash and Minister Hancock summarising the assessment of the FE Commissioners findings of his visit to the College with its own requirements on the College to alter its structure and leadership and consider a vision for the future to be submitted before the end of March 2014.

Accountability

The investigation covers the period while Sir Peter Birkett was the CEO of the Federation. During his tenure he was awarded a Knighthood in 2012 for his services to the “Further Education and Academy Movement” and name checked by in speeches by Michael Gove for his leadership achievements. Incidentally the Barnfield Skills Academy mentioned in that speech has also recently incurred the wrath of Lord Nash for it’s poor performance in last summer’s results. His tenure also saw the downgrading of the College by Ofsted to Satisfactory in September 2012 and the downgrading of Barnfield South Academy to “Requires Improvement” in May 2013. South Academy immediately launched an appeal against the rating which, presumably, was unsuccessful as the 3 rating still stands.

For this service to the public of Luton Mr Birkett was remunerated to the tune of £193,000 with £15,000 in benefits in 2010/11. (April 2014 edit – data released this month shows that Mr Birkett’s basic salary in 2012/2013 was £228,000). He left his role at the Federation  in July 2013 to take up a role at the multinational education company and newly approved UK academy sponsor, GEMS as their CEO and was soon attending seminars with the likes of ex-President Bill Clinton. However this was short lived as he left suddenly on the 3rd December 2013 so to stop the investigation becoming an “undue distraction” for his new company. Still, the Federation has also continued to impress outsiders as they won “Best Academy Chain” in the 2013 Education Investor Awards. This though, didn’t stop the Federation losing the next two secondary academies they attempted to sponsor, first due the decision of Puttteridge High school’s Governors and then by the DfE rejecting their half completed sponsorship of Sandy Upper School.

Soon after news of the investigation broke through the local media Sir Peter released a statement.

Luton needs an outstanding FE College

Most importantly, all of this does not in any way help the current school leavers of Luton who would benefit greatly from a vibrant, energised FE route in the town. Across the 12 High schools in the Authority there is only one with an established Sixth Form and the two, recently opened, other school based Sixth Forms are in academies run by the Federation. This means a the large majority of the town’s youth move educational establishments at 16 and those offering quality routes and a good local reputation should enroll healthy numbers. Yet the most recent set of town wide destination data shows the number of students enrolling in FE Colleges each year has fallen from 1026 in 2008 to a low of 808 in 2012. Consider this against a backdrop where nearly 50% of students from both of the Federation sponsored Academies now move onto the FE route then you can see just how far the College’s stock has fallen among the youth of the town.

Luton Council is currently pushing through a range of upgrades to local infrastructure and transport links and promoting the town as a location for businesses to establish themselves. While striving to improve employment and investment prospects for the area they should be mindful that these companies will need a local skills base on which to draw. Nationally, there is an expectation on the FE sector from Ministers to be drivers of local enterprise and skills which will assist in the economic recovery. A revitalized Barnfield, able to move on from this investigation, would not only benefit young people but also support the future economic prospects of the area and I wish it every luck and support in success in those goals.

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3 comments

  1. I am impressed by your astute summarisation of all the facts … you have managed to put it together in a format that makes good subjective reading … you summarise by stating that ‘Luton needs an outstanding FE college’; it did have one, many of the staff now either ex-staff or demoralised worked hard in 2003 to realise this and again in 2006 … where has this gone, was the leadership capable of maintaining this? Also these reports leave many questions yet to be answered, something I hope will be eventually reconciled.

  2. I am totally shocked on how the Senior Management Team ,Governors and CEO have got away with what I would term as gross mismanagement and putting it politely abuse of funds [theft] that they are entrusted with .
    I feel sorry for all the students and the many professional hard working, dedicated and caring staff members who helped build a outstanding reputation over many years, only for it to be decimated by so called power-hungry individuals and their personal agendas to achieve status and glory who do not really have the best interest of the students at heart.

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