Break the rules and you’re out, minister tells academy bosses

The academies minister has declared there is “simply no place” in education for discredited academy bosses – and vowed to “take action” against those who flout the rules.

Baroness Berridge’s threat comes after the education secretary barred a third school leader this month for breaking academy rules.

Nardeep Sharma, the former chief executive of the Thrive Partnership Academy Trust, was banned from school management or governance for “failing to act with integrity and honesty” in “allowing” breaches of academy rules.

A government investigation last year found the trust, which is now winding up, spent almost £140,000 on website design services from a company connected to school staff. The company had submitted the highest bid.

It also bought gift hampers, ordered alcohol to hotel rooms and made unapproved severance payments.

The notice follows publication of two other barring orders – for Liam Nolan and Thomas Marshall – earlier this month. It’s the first time banning powers have been used for those implicated in academy scandals.

Berridge told Schools Week there was a “small handful of individuals whose conduct fails to meet the high standards we expect of those who are entrusted with making sure children receive the education they deserve, and that public money is spent effectively.

“There is simply no place for these individuals in our education system – whether that’s in academies or elsewhere. As recent cases demonstrate, they will be identified and action will be taken to make sure children’s right to a high-quality education is protected.”

However, the government is already facing calls for “much more consistency” in its bans – highlighting a failure to take action in other high-profile academy scandals.

Sharma, who was a member of the headteacher adviser board for Sue Baldwin, the regional schools commissioner for the East of England and North-East London. said he was “surprised to learn of the notice”.

Schools Week understands that Sharma, whose website says he is now providing “executive education leadership services” and is writing a book on mental health in the education sector, has signed a gagging clause that restricts what he can say about his time at the trust.

“Perhaps a public inquiry could get to the truth of what happened at Thrive,” he added.

He has three months to appeal the order.

Under section 128 of the Education and Skills Act 2008, the education secretary may give a direction prohibiting a person from taking part in the management of an independent school on prescribed grounds connected with the person’s suitability.

The orders also prevent the former academy leaders from serving as governors of local authority maintained schools.

Analysis by Schools Week found 16 section 128 orders have been issued since 2015. However, more than half (ten) have been published this year – with six this month alone.

Four relate to people running illegal schools, with five banned because of criminal convictions.

The government investigation into the Thrive trust found a “number of significant findings and breaches of the academies financial handbook” including “poor oversight, poor procurement practices, questionable recruitment and severance processes and instances of irregular expenditure”.

Sharma and Catherine Hutley, the executive principal, were suspended in March 2018 after allegations of “inappropriate conduct and financial mismanagement”. The pair quit in October of that year.

Annual accounts up to December 2018, the most recent published by the trust, show Sharma received between £45,000 and £50,000 for the last four months of that year.

The accounts state this included contractual notice pay.

Howard Freed, a former headteacher at the trust, previously said the suspension of Hutley was “unfounded. She ultimately resigned and no disciplinary action followed.”

Thrive transferred its two schools into Sigma Trust in January last year and has since closed.