Revealed: RSC offered academy trust a deal to limit ‘reputational damage’

Revealed: RSC offered academy trust a deal to limit 'reputational damage'

A schools commissioner offered a troubled academy trust a “sweetheart deal” to quietly shift its schools to avoid information about its failings being made public.

Jennifer Bexon-Smith (pictured), schools commissioner for the East Midlands and Humber, struck a deal to avoid sending termination warning notices to Sandhill Multi-Academy Trust, despite admitting there was “sufficient evidence” to start a formal closure over its two schools.

Termination warning notices are published documents that reveal the failings of a school and list the actions an academy trust must take if it wishes to retain the school.

Parents, the local community and local councillors have a right to know why a trust is being removed from its responsibility

Bexon-Smith told the trust she had lost confidence in its ability to “effectively” manage and govern its academies after it “misled” parents over government intervention in SATs testing.

But documents seen by Schools Week show that the Yorkshire-based trust took up an option to have its schools switched to another trust on the quiet – a move that Bexon-Smith said would save it from “further reputational damage”.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “Parents, the local community and local councillors have a right to know why a trust is being removed from its responsibility – and that should be done through formal processes.

“It’s not the RSC’s job to save reputational damage. This is public money.”

Warning notices sent to trusts that RSCs believe are underperforming, or have weaknesses in safeguarding, governance or financial management, are usually published on the Department for Education website.

But a letter from Bexon-Smith to the trust in November 2015, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, said she “preferred” the trust to rebroker without the “formal route of issuing termination warning notices”.

The letter said her alternative would save trustees from further reputational damage and “hopefully bring about swift improvements for the benefit of
the pupils”.

The document reveals a rare glimpse into the inner workings of schools commissioner decisions, few of which are currently made public.

Bousted added: “Is this happening at more than one school? Is there a concerted cover-up of multi-academy trust performance?

“If it is happening on a wider scale, then it casts into doubt the role of schools commissioners and how they are accountable for public money.”

If it is happening on a wider scale, then it casts into doubt the role of schools commissioners

It was reported in December 2015 – one month after Bexon-Smith’s original letter – the trust was to be wound up, with its two schools rebrokered.

The information was only made public after journalists were tipped off by a source.

Schools Week asked the Department for Education if commissioners should be able to dodge publishing warning notices and if other trusts had been offered similar deals.

A spokesperson said: “Where issues are identified, discussions with trusts and actions taken by the department vary according to the particular circumstances facing the trust.”

Robert Hill, an education consultant and former government adviser, told Schools Week he suspected it was “not the first time” formal intervention procedures had been flouted.

He added: “However, my concern would be that we don’t have a formal public record of rebrokering transfers. They should be listed – along with the reasons for them.”