Grammar school ordered to pay back £1.5m in overclaimed maintenance cash

Single-academy trust 'knowingly took decisions to utilise funding on works beyond the scope of the approved bids', probe finds

Single-academy trust 'knowingly took decisions to utilise funding on works beyond the scope of the approved bids', probe finds

Schools with identified RAAC are being urged to put contingency plans in place in case of closure by the DfE

A grammar school overclaimed more than £1.5 million in government maintenance funding and then provided false information to the Department for Education about the projects, an investigation has found.

Queen Elizabeth Grammar School Penrith in Cumbria has been issued with a government notice to improve by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and ordered to repay the money.

It is also due to be rebrokered into a nearby multi-academy trust.

It follows a probe into the school, a single-academy trust, prompted by allegations that it failed to return surplus condition improvement funding (CIF) to the DfE and spent it on other projects.

Schools and trusts can apply to the fund for money to carry out maintenance and repair projects. It is separate from school rebuilding funding, which covers larger-scale projects.

The ESFA investigation focused on four CIF-funded projects between 2016 and 2018. It found the school had “overclaimed and been paid” £1,502,393.40 in relation to three of the four bids.

In the case of these bids, “work was undertaken without approval or where information submitted within the bid is deemed to be misrepresented”.

The probe also found the school broke academy funding rules by awarding the project management contract for all four projects to the same company, with “no evidence” it invited other bids.

It also relied too heavily on the advice of the project management company, breaching funding rules requiring trusts to have a “robust control framework that includes planning and oversight of any capital projects”.

Trust ‘knowingly’ spent funding on unapproved works

Governing body and finance committee minutes also confirmed the school “knowingly took decisions to utilise funding on works beyond the scope of the approved bids when they were aware it should have been returned to the DfE”.

The accounting officer at the time also submitted “false completion returns to the DfE”.

This week, headteacher David Marchant, who has only been in-post since September, said the school was “saddened” by the investigation’s findings, but “accept[s] its conclusions”.

He said the governors were working to transfer the school to the West Lakes Multi Academy Trust, at which point the current trust will be wound up.

“We are now committed to working with the ESFA and Department of Education to learn from those conclusions in a way that will allow the school to move forward.”

He said the repayment of the £1.5 million “will not in any way affect the smooth running of the school, or the learning experience of the students”.

“Since I became headteacher at QEGS in September, I have been immensely impressed by the determination of the staff to always deliver the best possible education, by providing a rigorous academic curriculum that ensures our students reach their full potential.”

School overclaimed for heating and classrooms

The school received £528,234 in funding for replacement boilers in its main building and gym, but only spent £207,892.44 on work approved under the CIF bid, leaving a disparity of £320,341.56. However, the trust confirmed the funding had been spent in full.

A repayment of £42,220 had already been made to the DfE, leaving £269,193.56 to be clawed back.

The trust also received £1,241,894 to demolish two 1950s timber mobile blocks and build a new teaching block. The trust said the blocks were used for “basic need teaching” accommodation, when in fact they were used as a dining and art display area.

The ESFA concluded the school had overclaimed £1,204,779.04 on the project, and also misused £35,900 in unspent funding from the boiler project to fund project management fees for the block replacements.

Finally, the probe found a £395,689 spend on fire alarms, doors and precautions work included £39,392.98 worth of work that hadn’t been part of the bid, leading to a clawback of £28,420.80.

Issuing the notice to improve, ESFA director of schools financial support and oversight Warwick Sharp warned of “poor oversight of financial management by the board”.

Under the terms of the notice, the school must run certain financial decisions past the ESFA.

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