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Former academies minister faces accusation of cronyism

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Former academies minister Lord Nash has been accused of “threatening to allow” an academy trust to “become financially unviable” unless it appointed his former business associate as chair.

Steve Munby, former chief executive of CfBT Schools Trust, which sponsors CST Academy Trust, has revealed the tale in his new book, accusing Nash of “abusing his position”.

In my opinion, this was an example of a minister abusing his position and going further than he had a right to do

In the book, entitled Imperfect Leadership, Munby talks about his time heading up the sponsor of CST, while it was under government scrutiny of its school performance and finances.

Munby said how CST, where he was also chair, was warned that a poorly performing but financially strong school would be rebrokered unless it improved, leaving the trust “bankrupt”.

In June 2015, Nash sent a “rather threatening” letter setting out how to avoid the rebrokerage.

It included 13 conditions, one of which was to make Nash’s former business colleague David Whittaker – a former investment director at Nash’s private equity firm Sovereign Capital – chair of CST.

Another condition was to appoint Whittaker and another Nash-approved candidate as members of the trust – meaning the original sponsor would be a minority member.

“I was deeply shocked. The minister was threatening to allow CST to become financially unviable unless David Whittaker was put in as chair of the board and unless CfBT were no longer the main sponsor,” Munby wrote.

“In my opinion, this was an example of a minister abusing his position and going further than he had a right to do.”

The CfBT board refused to insert Whittaker as chair of CST, and the school remained with the trust.

However, Nash did insist that Munby stand down as chair of CST. Munby highlighted that Nash was chair of the Future Academies trust and its sponsor, Future, at the time.

But Munby said he now felt Nash was “right to encourage me to stand down”.

The former academies minister told Schools Week he was “delighted” to hear that. He added Whittaker volunteered for the role “out of the kindness of his heart to help the academy movement pro bono and I have no doubt that he could have been of considerable assistance to CST”.

Whittaker said he was was offered a position on the board but they were clear they did not want him to be the chair.

“I declined, as I was only prepared to get involved if appointed chairman,” he said.

A DfE spokesperson said they took “decisive action, persuading the trust to make significant changes to address the governance weaknesses in the trust, and helping to bring about improvements. If a similar set of circumstances existed today the department would intervene in a similar way.”



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3 Comments

  1. Mark Watson

    Firstly I’d be interested to know whether these “13 conditions” were in fact conditions or merely suggestions on how to improve what looks like a poor situation at CST. The fact that CST didn’t appoint David Whittaker as Chair, and by the looks of it didn’t make CfBT Schools Trust a minority Member, and the school was still not rebrokered leads me to suspect they weren’t conditions at all.

    Secondly, ‘cronyism’ usually involves someone being appointed to a position they don’t deserve and as a result obtaining financial benefit (e.g. a nice cushy public sector job for the golfing chum). If appointed as Chair of CST David Whittaker wouldn’t have earned a penny, but would have had to invest a very considerable amount of his time into the Trust. Not really the same sort of thing is it?

    • Like you, I find this all very puzzling.

      In 2014, CfBT was prevented from opening a new primary in Lincolnshire by the regional schools commissioner. CfBT had had a presence in the county since the early noughties as Lincolnshire’s school improvement partner. Michael Gove had said in 2010 he would be happy to let CfBT (and Serco) run schools if they wanted to.

      CfBT took over a few Lincs schools on conversion but two at least have since been dropped (one was inadequate twice under its watch).

      Very odd indeed.

      • Mark Watson

        Could it possibly be that Steve Munby, whose book is published on 28 June, is trying to drum up publicity and sales by trying to portray DfE/RSC attempts to rectify the problems caused by the organisation he ran as secretive cronyism ?

        Given that it’s not published yet, presumably he (or his publisher), leaked this to Schools Week in the hope that they’d bite. Got to hand it to them, it worked a charm.