Financial investigation into Bright Tribe trust remains ‘hidden’ by education secretary

Financial investigation into Bright Tribe trust remains 'hidden' by education secretary

The education secretary has been accused of “hiding” a financial investigation into a controversial academy trust run by the government’s former free schools director.

The Bright Tribe trust was the subject of an Education Funding Agency (EFA) review last month over payments it made to companies connected to its founder, venture capitalist Michael Dwan.

Lord Nash, school system minister, said the trust was ordered to revise its 2014-15 accounts to include previously undisclosed payments.

The trust, run by former EFA free schools deputy director Kathy Kirkham (pictured), disputes that the trust was told to revise its accounts.

But it is believed that the EFA drew up an action plan for the trust, last year named by former education secretary Nicky Morgan as a “top performing sponsor” and handed a slice of a £5 million of government funding to take over schools in the north.

The government’s rules state it is in the public interest to publish such investigations to show “transparency about how public money
is spent”.

Education secretary Justine Greening has refused a request for a copy of the review by Schools Week, made under the Freedom of Information Act.

She said releasing the information would inhibit the exchange of free and frank views between the agency and trusts.

Pressure is now mounting on the government to explain why it is withholding details of the report – with critics questioning why similar finance reviews into other academy trusts have been published.

Janet Downs, a campaigner for local schools, said: “It’s important for the sake of transparency that all reviews and action plans should be published. If they aren’t, then it raises the question about how many other reviews and plans remain hidden.”

It’s important for the sake of transparency that all reviews and action plans should be published

Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham and a member of the education committee, lodged a parliamentary question in June asking if a copy of the Bright Tribe report could be put into the Commons library where it could be accessed by MPs.

The government is yet to respond. Timms said he was “puzzled” by the non-response and would pursue the matter when parliament was back after recess.

But he added: “It is an unsatisfactory situation. I don’t think academisation was intended to hide information about public funding, which has always been in the public domain – and should be now as well.”

Concerns about Bright Tribe’s related-party transactions were raised with the government by Will Quince, Conservative MP for Colchester, after an investigation by The Observer newspaper in June.

In response, Nash said an EFA review had found additional transactions should have been included in the trust’s latest accounts, adding: “we worked with the trust to make these disclosures in a revised set of accounts”.

In July, Lord Watson, the shadow education minister in the Lords, highlighted Bright Tribe – with four other trusts – as the most “egregious examples found by the Education Funding Agency of where the financial requirements for academy trusts were not adhered to”.

Of those examples listed, Bright Tribe is seemingly the only case where a report has not been published.

The EFA, on its website, says that it aims to publish investigations when “it is appropriate to do so”.

This pledge refers to a number of scenarios, including EFA assurance reviews relating to finance and governance, which seemingly fits the description of the Bright Tribe investigation.

The Department for Education (DfE) would only say that information was not routinely published and was decided on a case-by-case basis.

Bright Tribe pointed Schools Week to a statement on its website, published last month, which said its accounts were submitted once and “have not been amended or revised”.

However, the trust said that Dwan “sought to enhance the disclosure relating to his support to ensure there was no misunderstanding”.