‘I'm sorry’: Bright Tribe founder Michael Dwan apologises to Whitehaven

Michael Dwan, the founder of the controversial Bright Tribe Trust, has apologised for the problems faced by Cumbria’s troubled Whitehaven Academy, but bemoaned a lack of support from the government and some members of the community.

In a long statement from the private office of the venture capitalist, “a small number of individuals” were blamed for “disingenuous, counterproductive and dangerous” criticism of Bright Tribe, adding that Dwan got involved in running schools only at the Department for Education’s urging.

Schools Week revealed earlier this week that Bright Tribe is to close down following a protracted dispute with community leaders over its running of schools in the north of England, which has in recent years largely focused on deteriorating buildings and falling standards at Whitehaven.

It was confirmed last week that Whitehaven will be almost completely rebuilt at the government’s expense and handed to a new sponsor, the Cumbria Education Trust.

In a statement published on the website of Dwan’s charity, the Helping Hands Trust, he said he was “very sad and sorry that the trust which I started in 2013, with great philanthropic aspiration, did not meet its objectives at Whitehaven.

“There is entirely understandable strength of feeling in the Whitehaven community and I would like to let the community know that I am sorry.”

He insisted that the “failure to turn around the quality of teaching and learning and an inability to secure a new school was not for want of trying” and said that a “huge proportion” of the trust’s annual budget had been spent trying to repair damage to the school, which had deteriorated “over previous decades”.

“However, despite the problems at Whitehaven, the trust and schools elsewhere are succeeding and I believe they should be celebrated and congratulated for the positive changes they have made for children in some of the poorest communities,” Dwan added.

The statement, which runs to over 1,000 words, explains how Whitehaven was always supposed to be part of a cluster of three schools in Cumbria run by Bright Tribe.

Schools Week revealed last week how attempts by Bright Tribe to create an “axis of improvement” for schools in rural Cumbria failed because it was prevented from taking on other schools in the county.

Bright Tribe argued for improvements including new buildings, a vocational-led curriculum, a merger with a university technical college or “closing or relaunching as a new school” from 2014 onwards, Dwan’s office said. But it “became clear” in early 2016 “that the DfE were unable to support any of these proposals”, and a new sponsor was sought.

“Alongside understandable community frustration, a small number of individuals began campaigning against the trust and blamed 15 years of failure on the trust, despite being a relative newcomer,” the statement said. “Some claims became disingenuous, counterproductive and dangerous.”

The statement also defends much-criticised related-party transactions between the trust and Dwan’s companies, insisting that his priority “was to supply urgently required resources for schools and his motive in this was not commercial or profit driven and no profits were made”.

In November 2016, a government investigation into both Bright Tribe and its sister trust Adventure Learning Academies Trust, also founded by Dwan, revealed that rules over payments to trustees had been breached, as nearly 80 per cent of trustees were in receipt of related party transactions.

However, Dwan’s office insisted the DfE had agreed to a business case that involved using his own employed teams and his money to “fund and resource” the trust until it was self-sufficient, and that all payments and donations had been properly recorded.

It also said Dwan was “persuaded” by the DfE to start the trusts and take on challenging schools, adding: “It was never guaranteed or even likely that his efforts would succeed where others had failed, but Mr Dwan was convinced that he had to try.”

Dwan resigned from both trusts in September 2017, “having completed his original philanthropic objective” and having “provided close to £5m of financial support to educational causes with some significant success”.

However, Schools Week revealed last week how frustrations about government scrutiny and concerns that his efforts had gone unrecognised were also a factor in his decision to walk away from the trusts.

Dwan’s full statement can be read here.