'Learn lessons' from the 'terrible case' of Whitehaven and Bright Tribe, says Damian Hinds

The government must “learn lessons” from the fiasco surrounding the troubled Whitehaven Academy and its sponsor the Bright Tribe Trust, the education secretary has said.

Damian Hinds told the parliamentary education committee this morning that he accepted that a scandal which has left the struggling Cumbria school in special measures and with rapidly deteriorating buildings had been a “terrible case for everybody in the local community”.

Bright Tribe is preparing to walk away from Whitehaven and three more of its schools in the north following a long-running dispute. The chain also faces questions about its failure to establish a “northern hub”, an initiative for which it was given around £1 million in funding.

Hinds said the problems facing Whitehaven had been a “terrible case for the parents concerned, for everybody in the local community”.

“The four northern Bright Tribe academies are going to be rebrokered, as you know, and officials from the department are working with the school on some of these immediate issues, but it’s really important that we learn lessons from Whitehaven and from Bright Tribe.”

Whitehaven is in the Copeland constituency of Conservative MP Trudy Harrison, who sits on the education committee. Last year, she was escorted from the school site during a visit to check on flood damage.

Harrison told Hinds this morning that the facilities at Whitehaven were “appalling”, with rotten window frames that have had to be nailed shut, no ventilation and malfunctioning radiators subjecting pupils and staff to temperatures of more than 36 degrees.

The nuclear industry, which operates extensively in the region, has even had to step in to provide the school with computers because Bright Tribe “failed in their duty to provide a fit-for-purpose building”.

“The were actually given, I believe it was around about £1 million to create a northern hub, a suite of excellence,” said Harrison. “But from our understanding that money has just gone on senior leadership wages. Where is the transparency for parents to hold multi-academy trusts to account?”

Although he claimed there is “quite a lot of transparency” in the academies sector, Hinds agreed to “take stock” as the system is “evolving”, and insisted it is “legitimate” and “important” for parents to want a way to assess effectiveness of MATs.

However, he would not commit to giving Ofsted the power to inspect multi-academy trusts in their entirety, rather than simply inspecting groups of their schools as inspectors do now, a power the chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman has demanded.

A spokesperson for Bright Tribe said the trust was “aware of the problems with the school’s buildings, and has lobbied at the highest level in an attempt to secure funding for a new build school”.