Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust issued with Financial Notice to Improve following EFA investigation

The troubled Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust (CHAT)  in north London has been served a financial notice to improve following a damning report by the Education Funding Agency (EFA).

The move by the EFA follows the release today of its investigation into the multi-academy trust in Enfield  following serious allegations in relation to safeguarding, bullying and harassment of staff, recruitment issues, HR processes, IT policies and SATs results and assessment.

Sent to the chair of the five-academy trust  Marino Charalambous, the financial notice to improve said the report outlined a material breach of the Academies Financial Handbook (AFH) and consequently of the Master Funding Agreement, alongside serious concerns on governance.

There were specific breaches of the articles of association in relation to the employment and remuneration of relations of trustees, and breaches of the AFH in relation to the failure to declare, register, and otherwise properly manage conflicts of interest. All financial transactions of the trust must now come to the EFA for approval.

Martin Post, regional schools commissioner for the North West and South Central, has also written to the chair of CHAT. He said that because the trust had begun to address some of the serious weaknesses in its governance, “we have decided not to issue a Notice of Provisional Intention to Terminate the Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust’s Supplementary Funding Agreement at this point”. But he said the Secretary of State would consider termination if a comprehensive action plan to address material breaches was not supplied. The trust has until February 19 to submit a complete response and action plan and should also supply him with monthly progress reports, Mr Post added.

The schools under investigation were Cuckoo Hall Academy – a primary converter academy, Woodpecker Hall Academy – a primary free school, Kingfisher Hall – a primary free school, Heron Hall – a secondary free school and Enfield Heights  – a primary free school.

The allegation about the results of SATs tests at age 11 was that they had been inflated. Evidence on this was gathered during the investigation, but is “beyond the remit” of EFA, and has been passed to the Standards and Testing Agency.

In relation to safeguarding, the allegation was that staff had been employed at Cuckoo Hall without DBS checks and that the Single Central Register (SCR) had been falsified during an Ofsted inspection. The investigation found evidence of serious breaches of the Trust’s funding agreement and the Independent School Standards in relation to Cuckoo Hall Academy – a primary converter academy that opened in September 2010 and was rated good by Ofsted in June 2014. Evidence was found that a significant number of staff at Cuckoo Hall Academy started work prior to the receipt of DBS clearance. In “at least 25 instances” individuals started on payroll prior to receipt of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) clearance.It was also alleged staff within the trust had been bullied, and that a close relative of the executive head and her husband had been appointed to a senior leadership position within CHAT without a transparent and fair recruitment process.

In relation to allegations about recruitment and conflicts of interest, the investigation found evidence of “at least three failures to follow the proper procedures in managing conflict of interest in appointments” One example being a family member of the executive head and the suspended trustee being appointed to a senior leadership post within CHAT. According to the report, the family member was interviewed for an advertised post, and then appointed to a different acting post. This acting post was on a salary significantly higher than the advertised post – though in line with equivalent leadership posts.

According to the report, the application form submitted does not indicate the post that was applied for. The head of Cuckoo Hall Academy was responsible for the recruitment and in interview said she had wanted to appoint the family member on a permanent basis to the higher paid post but agreed based on advice from HR that it would be on an acting basis. The Trust’s written evidence is this decision was taken in the context of significant pressure to fill leadership posts particularly with the Trust taking over Enfield Heights – which opened in September 2012. The investigation team said there was no evidence that the trust’s policies on managing conflicts of interest were complied with.

It also found evidence of a failure to follow process in pay rises and promotions, particularly where there is a potential conflict of interest.There was “conflicting evidence” on an allegation that the former chair of trustees’ electronic signature had been used on a letter without her permission. There was evidence that the IT policy and code of conduct had potentially been breached, though the allegation of “hacking” was not proven.

There was “some evidence” that the Trust’s policies on bullying have not always been complied with, the investigation concluded. Of the 28 members of staff and former members of staff the investigation team interviewed, nine said they had been bullied, and a further 10 talked about negative behaviours towards them.

The Board of Trustees commissioned its own independent report into the allegations. This report looked at the allegations relating to individual staff and has been concluded. It resulted in a unanimous vote by the board of CHAT which lifted the suspensions on executive headteacher Patricia Sowter and headteacher Sharon Ahmet. Trustee Phill Sowter, who denied allegations of gross misconduct, also had his suspension removed by the trust in early January. The suspensions were announced in late November by the then trust chair Andry Efthymiou, who has since been removed from her position pending further investigations.

The board concluded the evidence did not support “any charge of misconduct let alone gross misconduct” against Ms Sowter and Ms Ahmed. The allegations surrounded claims of bullying and harassment and that attainment results had been falsified. The board said that no evidence of this was found.

In a statement today, CHAT said: “Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust, under the excellent leadership of Patricia Sowter, is proud to provide a superb quality education to more than 1,400 pupils across five schools. These high standards are acknowledged by the Department for Education and Ofsted. We are pleased that Ministers have today decided that the trust, its schools and our pupils are best served by remaining under the current leadership.

It added: “Today’s report refutes a number of unfounded allegations but we accept some of our policies and processes have not developed as they should have as the Trust has grown from a single school to a five-school chain. “We have made mistakes but we have been working constructively with the EFA to address these issues over the last few weeks. Significant improvements have now either been implemented already or are underway. This work has been complemented by a number of reviews we commissioned as soon as the allegations came to light. “This has been a difficult period but from today we move forward as a stronger Trust. We have a united Board, superb teachers, wonderful pupils and supportive parents in a community we are proud to serve, and we remain committed to delivering the very best education to children in a safe, fun and positive learning environment.”

CHAT said that a number of actions had been adopted. These included  a new governance framework following a national review by the EFA in December, a review of the trustee training programme, and the correction of errors in the SCR. The requirement that all trustees sit on headteacher appointment panels has been extended to deputy headteacher appointment panels.

It added that the  allegation relating to SATs results and assessments were “nonsense and no evidence has been produced to substantiate these damaging claims”.

Key points from the report included:
Safeguarding: 

On safeguarding, the investigation found evidence of serious breaches of the Trust’s funding agreement and the Independent School Standards in relation to Cuckoo Hall Academy. Given these concerns, the EFA sought immediate reassurance from the Trust that DBS checks are in place in all schools across the Trust; and of there being no danger to children from issues identified in a health and safety audit carried out on 27 October 2014 – prior to the EFA investigation at Cuckoo Hall Academy. The Trust has taken action and “provided full reassurance that children at the schools within CHAT are currently safe”, said the report.

The investigation found that safeguarding policies are in place, including a Safeguarding Children policy drawn up in November 2014 for Cuckoo Hall Academy. But there was no evidence obtained by the investigation that this had yet been submitted to and agreed by the CHAT Board. The Chair of the Board’s evidence is that this would have been considered by the CHAT Board in December 2014, had the suspensions not taken place.

Evidence was found that a significant number of staff at Cuckoo Hall Academy started work prior to the receipt of DBS clearance. In “at least 25 instances” individuals started on payroll prior to receipt of DBS. In some cases this was a very short period. However, in over 20 cases it was over one week; and in over 10 cases over three weeks. Of these, “least 20 may reasonably be expected to have had some unsupervised access to children, including 2 examples of senior staff”, said the report.

No evidence was found that risk assessments were undertaken for the staff who had started prior to DBS checks, or that they were accompanied until their DBS check was received by CHAT.

The EFA said the requirement to obtain suitability checks of all staff before or as soon as practicable after appointment is clearly set out in Part 4 of the Independent School Standards and a failure to comply is a breach both of these Standards and the funding agreement.

In relation to the allegation that the SCR was falsified during an Ofsted inspection, the investigation found “significant disparities” between the Cuckoo Hall Academy payroll data and the 30 June SCR on start dates. In at least 25 cases, the SCR records show a start date after the receipt of DBS, when payroll data show these individuals started prior to DBS clearance. In addition 26 records were deleted from the SCR, 17 of which had start dates prior to DBS checks. The fact that SCR start dates have been recorded as after the DBS checks or records deleted “may suggest an attempt to conceal staff being employed without a DBS”, said the report.

Evidence from three members of staff including staff involved in making the alleged amendments supported this, said the report. “Specifically, interviewees suggested that the changing of the records took place on 26 June 2014, after the first day of an Ofsted inspection and was done with the intention of showing start dates following receipt of DBS checks.”

On fire safety, a member of the Board of Trustees brought to the attention of the investigation team an audit of health and safety at Cuckoo Hall Academy dated 27 October which raised significant safety concerns, particularly in relation to fire safety. Some actions had been taken to address the issues in the audit, but there were significant gaps – for example in relation to a fire drill not taking place on the site jointly occupied by Cuckoo Hall Academy and Woodpecker Hall Academy following the linking of the fire alarm systems.

It was “clearly a structural failure of safeguarding policy and accountability that the findings of this Health and Safety Audit were not communicated in a transparent way to the trustees and senior leadership team”, said the report.

Bullying:

There is some evidence from the interviews conducted that the Trust’s policies on bullying have not always been complied with, the investigation concluded. Of the 28 members of staff and former members of staff the investigation team interviewed, nine said they had been bullied, and a further 10 talked about negative behaviours towards them.

But the report said concerns about bullying “were not universal and some senior staff have spoken in interviews of senior leadership being very supportive of them”. The EFA said it was not its function to make findings on specific allegations of bullying and harassment, and these were part of the scope of the Trust’s own investigation.

Recruitment:

The investigation has seen evidence of at least three failures to follow the proper procedures in managing conflict of interest in appointments. The investigation obtained no evidence that the process on managing conflicts of interests had been carried out, which was a clear breach of  the Academies Financial Handbook.

One example of non-compliance was a family member of the executive head and the suspended Trustee being appointed to a senior leadership post within CHAT. The family member was interviewed for an advertised post, and then appointed to a different acting post. This acting post was on a salary significantly higher than the advertised post  –  though in line with equivalent leadership posts.

According to the report, the application form submitted does not indicate the post that was applied for. The head of Cuckoo Hall Academy was responsible for the recruitment and in interview said she had wanted to appoint the family member on a permanent basis to the higher paid post but agreed based on advice from HR that it would be on an acting basis. The Trust’s written evidence is this decision was taken in the context of significant pressure to fill leadership posts particularly with the Trust taking over Enfield Heights.

The investigation team reviewed the minutes of the board of trustees at the point of this appointment and the only reference to it is the Local Governing Body being informed of the appointment in draft minutes of the Board meeting on 10 November. There is no evidence that the trust’s policies on managing conflicts of interest were complied with. It also found evidence of a failure to follow process in pay rises and promotions, particularly where there is a potential conflict of interest.

 

HR Processes:

There conflicting evidence on a specific allegation that the former chair of trustees’ electronic signature had been used on a letter without her permission. A letter was sent with the former chair’s signature.

The investigation said the interview evidence of the former chair and the former member of staff is that a member of staff sent a letter of appeal following their dismissal to the former chair marked ‘private and confidential’. The former chair’s recollection is that she did not see this letter or know that the member of staff had been dismissed. The former chair has subsequently seen a letter using her electronic signature that she stated in interview that she did not see or sign. The suspended member of the Board of Trustees in his evidence said a holding letter was sent on behalf of the chair but that was with her full knowledge and consent.

The investigation found the trust has a disciplinary policy in place which sets out the policy and procedures to be followed on disciplinaries, dismissals and suspensions, and that the

governing body has delegated day-to-day responsibility for operating the policy to the executive head. The policy also sets the circumstances and process for suspension of staff, and the 3 stage process to be followed for a dismissal. The investigation did find some disputed evidence from interviews with staff and former members of staff that these policies on suspension and dismissals were not complied with, but said this was outside the scope of the review, and would form part of the scope of the Trust’s own investigation.

IT policies and security

There was evidence that the IT policy and code of conduct had potentially been breached, though the allegation of “hacking” was not proven.

The Trust’s policy prohibits the misuse of email communications and breaches of individual password rules.

There was interview evidence from a member of staff that the suspended member of the Board of Trustees asked for the password to someone else’s email account, and subsequently accessed this account without their prior knowledge. But the suspended member of the Board of Trustees’ evidence is that this is not the case, and that he “asked a member of staff to check if there had been an email from a particular individual”. The Board of Trustees’ written evidence is that there is no evidence an email was accessed.

SATS – testing and assessment:

The allegation is that there was malpractice in the conduct of national testing at age 11, which is beyond the remit of the EFA. The investigation gathered information on the SATs results, and the EFA has passed this to the Standards and Testing Agency.