A maths teacher made an OBE in the new year honours has denounced a “pointless, traumatic” 10-year legal battle that left a deprived west London borough £5 million out of pocket.
Dr Richard Evans received the award for services to charitable fundraising during Covid. He had been made an MBE in 2003 for services to education.
Evans, who teaches at Mill Hill County High School in Barnet, ran the 2020 London Marathon for charity having survived a heart attack the previous May. He was treated at the Royal Free Hospital, to which he had delivered food parcels for frontline staff just days before.
Evans says he laid the blame for that heart attack squarely at the door of his ex-employer, the London Borough of Brent, and the Metropolitan Police.
A former deputy head of Copland Community School in Wembley, Evans was suspended and sacked in 2009. In a sensational case, four ex-staffers including headteacher Alan Davies and two governors were accused of defrauding the school to the tune of £2.7 million in bonuses.
Five of the so-called “Copland Six” were acquitted of conspiracy to defraud in 2013. Davies pleaded guilty to six counts of false accounting.
But in 2018, the High Court ruled that four, including Evans, had knowingly taken unlawful, unjustified overpayments, ordering them to pay back £1.4m to Brent.
Evans received £600,000 in salary increases and one-off payments in the period, and was found liable for around £250,000. He was ordered to pay back £46,000 with the remainder statute-barred.
The council never recovered most of the cash. The decade-long tussle left the defendants’ careers in tatters while Copland’s fate was sealed ahead of a planned academy conversion.
‘The whole experience was terrifying’
Evans, a former education adviser to David Cameron, maintains he had no idea he was being overpaid as he believed the payments, described as bonuses, had been approved by the local authority.
“The whole experience, quite bluntly, was terrifying,” he said. “When you go through something like this, you question every sinew, every bit of what you held to be important. There’s no sense of apology.”
The High Court judge had accepted Evans probably had not thought the payments were unlawful. But the judge found the payments to be “unconscionable” and said a “reasonable person” in Dr Evans’s position would have questioned them.
Staffers’ signing-off on the payments was also described as “reckless conduct [that] demonstrates a high level of incompetent governance” – even if not always “dishonest”.
Brent council said it stood by its decision to pursue the money based on the High Court ruling.
“The unlawful overpayments should have been used to improve the education of pupils at Copland school,” it said.
“Taking no action would have been unjust and would have sent the wrong message to public servants in Brent and elsewhere.”
Before the scandal, Copland was a 1,400-place secondary in a diverse area that counted footballer Raheem Stirling among its former pupils and was rated “satisfactory” by Ofsted.
“It was a challenging environment,” Evans said, “but a challenge I looked forward to. We tried to give young people the sense that they could achieve anything.”
At 6.50am on March 1, 2011, Evans and his wife were arrested in a raid on their home. In addition to fraud, he was retrospectively accused by a whistleblower of stealing three paintings valued at £120,000.
The paintings had never left Copland’s grounds and had been located by Brent as early as 2009. They were donated to Copland by the late, influential British artist Mary Fedden, one of several public figures whom pupils had met on Evans’s initiative.
Unfair dismissal claim was upheld
Brent lodged its claim at the High Court on the eve of Evans’s employment tribunal. In 2009 he had been given an 800-page investigation report to read 19 days before the disciplinary hearing. His unfair dismissal claim was ultimately upheld in August 2020.
The council spent £1.7 million of public money on the High Court case and was ordered to pay more than £260,000 in costs. Evans’s tribunal alone cost Brent more than £100,000; he had been told to pay back just £46,000, with the remainder statute-barred.
Separately, legal aid bills in the High Court case ran to half a million pounds.
To date, Brent has recovered just £450,000 of the overpaid cash – plus a Rolex watch that used to belong to Alan Davies.
Evans said his standing in the community had been devastated. “Immediately,” he said, “my name was in the papers. People Google it. Walking down my street, the abuse I got was phenomenal.
“Councils have to learn from this. It was pointless and destructive.”
Copland went into special measures in 2013. It was taken over by Ark academy trust that September. The paintings were returned to Fedden’s estate, at its request, in 2014.
Brent council said the conversion plans had not been a factor in the case.
Clarification: This article was amended on January 25 to include further details of the 2018 High Court ruling