The Bright Tribe Files: Conflict of interest warning over Manchester UTC link

A multi-millionaire property developer is facing criticism for a conflict of interest between two academy trusts he ran.

Michael Dwan was found to have shared sensitive information about the impending closure of one of his schools with another academy trust he chairs and which was hoping to open a new school on the site.

According to documents obtained by Schools Week, the founder and one-time chair of the Bright Tribe Trust, discussed the worsening situation at Greater Manchester University Technical College, an organisation he chaired, with Bright Tribe trustees in 2016, almost a year before the full extent of the UTC’s problems were revealed to the public.

This is a clear conflict of interest from the boss of Bright Tribe, circling Greater Manchester UTC a year before its collapse

Minutes from Bright Tribe board meetings in early 2016 show that the Stockport-based trust even applied to the government for permission to open a secondary free school to “replace provision” at the Greater Manchester UTC in Oldham, long before its closure was formally announced.

Dwan’s actions have inspired fierce criticism from local MP Lucy Powell, who said both Bright Tribe and the government must now face questions about potential conflicts of interest.

The trust is claiming that Vicky Beer, the regional schools commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, was in on its “confidential” plan, which was eventually thwarted by the Department for Education.

Last summer, Greater Manchester UTC became the seventh of the controversial 14-to-19 institutions to close amid recruitment problems just three years after it opened. It cost an estimated £9 million to build, but had just 127 pupils on its roll in January 2016, against a capacity of 600.

During a meeting on March 17, 2016, minutes record that Dwan “confirmed that following discussions at the previous meeting, Bright Tribe has submitted an application for a secondary school to operate alongside The GM UTC Oldham”.

At the time of the free school bid, property mogul Dwan was chair of both the trust and the UTC.

Powell, the MP for Manchester Central and a member of the parliamentary education committee, said it looked “like a case of letting that school fail and sweeping in afterwards”.

Lucy Powell

“This is a clear conflict of interest from the boss of Bright Tribe, circling Greater Manchester UTC a year before its collapse, whilst professing to support the organisation as the chair of its board,” she continued.

“This is another example of a real lack of oversight and accountability in our schools system and calls into question the commitment of Michael Dwan to the success of the UTC.”

Powell said there are “clearly questions to answer, for the board and leadership of Bright Tribe” about their “questionable motives towards GM UTC, and about how the regional schools commissioner, and ministers have allowed this benign accountability environment to grow”.

A spokesperson for Bright Tribe said that its board “considered that it would be appropriate to make a free school bid within the UTC”.

“The RSC was involved as the viability of the UTC was under scrutiny. Discussions were held with the RSC about the options that were available to the UTC,” they added. “This matter was dealt with in a confidential manner. The free school bid was not successful and there are no further plans to pursue this matter.”

Minutes from June 2016 note that the bid was rejected by the Department for Education. The trust agreed to “continue to offer appropriate partnership support to The GM UTC”. Plans for the future use of the site is unknown.

This article is part of a series of articles in our Bright Tribe Files investigation. For more, see edition 137 of Schools Week, out on Friday April 27.