Head made £40,000 ‘irregular’ payments, says EFA

A headteacher took more than £700 worth of alcohol from his school and made almost £40,000 of “irregular” payments before he resigned, a government report has found.

The Education Funding Agency (EFA) undertook an investigation at Sawtry Community College, an 11-18 school near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, after an internal whistleblower made serious allegations about the principal James Stewart.

The EFA report shows £39,026 of “potentially irregular expenditure”, including almost £25,000 spent on alcohol, hospitality and shopping using private school funds.

Some of the irregularities span back to 2008, although the bulk of the investigation looked at the 2013/14 financial year.

The report said: “This amount [£24,544] included expenditure on alcohol, hospitality, shopping, gift cards, home appliances/furnishings and generally items of a nature which did not obviously appear directly related to the running of the academy.”

Many purchases were made at weekends and at shops near Mr Stewart’s home, not the school, and did not have receipts.

Of this money, £3,593.62 was directly linked to alcohol purchases and £4,946.55 on hospitality. He also had a monthly wine club subscription and charged the school for his car insurance and repairs to vehicles “other than the one driven by [him]”.

Mr Stewart, who had worked at the school for nearly 30 years, claimed £2,934.84 for mobile phone bills and Virgin media packages for himself and his family.

On the day of his resignation, a laptop was taken from the school and the school noted alcohol worth £747 had been taken over two years. The report said he has since written a cheque for the cost of the alcohol and the laptop has been returned.

The school was placed in special measures at the end of June. Mr Stewart stepped down on the same day that the Ofsted report was published.

The chair of governors, Peter Leaton, resigned two weeks later.

The EFA has set out a number of recommendations for the school, but said it may continue to be involved with Sawtry and that funds might be recovered “which were not spent for the purposes intended”.

The school’s new and “revamped” governing body has voted in favour of joining Cambridge Meridian Academies Trust (CMAT), has a finance and audit committee and will undertake an independent review of financial transactions.

Acting principal Sarah Wilson said: “As suspected, the EFA has found a number of irregularities in the college’s finances under the former principal.

“We are confident that our current finances and financial governance are in order and our new leadership team and governing body are doing everything necessary to implement the recommendations of the report.

“It’s important to remember that Sawtry is a very successful school and our students continue to do well at both GCSE and A-level. We are focused on remedying past problems and realising improvements as set out in our seven-point improvement plan.”

On Wednesday, Cambridgeshire Police arrested a 69-year-old man from Bedford and a 61-year-old man from Peterborough on suspicion of misconduct in a public office.

What the EFA investigation found

  • £39,026 “potentially irregular expenditure incurred by the [former] principal
  • £2,934.82 – a year’s worth of direct debits for mobile and media charges for the former principal and his family
  • £4,615.01 – charge card for meals, food and mobiles
  • £6,370 – mileage claims for 12,740 miles – no travel records kept
  • £24,544 – expenses reclaimed for alcohol, hospitality, shopping, gift cards, etc. Of the £24,544, £3,393.62 on alcohol; £4,946.55 on hospitality/entertaining
  • Had a holiday every February in term time – leave was not recorded
  • Principal authorised bonus payments (£250) for some staff – trustees unaware
  • Principal authorised £1,100 “honorarium payment” for chair of governors over two years – not justified
  • A laptop was taken from his office when he resigned – he has since reimbursed the school and returned it

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