The Bright Tribe Files: Northumberland council takes legal action

Northumberland county council has launched legal action to recover £230,000 given to Bright Tribe academy trust to take on a struggling school because the chain later walked away from the deal.

Bright Tribe was paid to convert Haydon Bridge High School in Northumberland, but abandoned it last November, blaming the school’s deficit and low pupil numbers. The cash was never returned.

The local authority took action this week after the MAT admitted that money it received from the Department for Education to create a “northern hub” had been used for “activities such as due diligence”, rather than to aid school academisation.

They received public money to develop an educational offer, and they have failed to do that. For me, it is now critical that that money is returned

Previously unseen board minutes also reveal that Bright Tribe demanded more money to help it take on Haydon Bridge after burning through government northern hub funding totalling £1 million.

The documents, obtained by Schools Week and the Manchester Evening News, sensationally show how Bright Tribe’s disastrous attempts to expand in the north unfolded behind closed doors, and offer a glimpse into trustees’ thinking as sponsorship deal after sponsorship deal went south.

Bright Tribe announced plans to ditch all but one of its schools in the north in February, after a series of failed takeover bids by the trust, which privately blamed local authorities and the DfE for the “painfully slow” process of taking on new schools.

It was lined up as a sponsor of Haydon Bridge in 2015, after the school was rated ‘inadequate’ and placed into special measures by Ofsted.

But despite appointing an executive principal and substantive headteacher in September 2016, Bright Tribe soon washed its hands of the school, blaming the “significant and increasing financial deficit” and a decline in pupil numbers.

Board minutes from December 2016 reveal that the trust sought even more funding for the takeover, because it had already spent the £230,000 it received from central government the previous year.

A Bright Tribe spokesperson said the trust invested “a significant amount of time and effort” into trying to create a hub of schools in the north, but progress was hampered by “limited local political support for academisation” in the region.

Northern hub funds “were used explicitly for creating the hub and not the academisation of the schools”, said the spokesperson. For example, money was “used for activities such as due diligence prior to the conversion of schools”.

Figures obtained by ITV under the freedom of information act shows DfE funding of £230,000 was allocated specifically to assist with the takeover.

Now Northumberland county council has commenced legal action to recover the funds, and criticised the “blame culture” at Bright Tribe, and the trust’s failure to deliver an educational offer in the county.

“In the last couple of hours I have instructed our head of legal services to formally begin action to recover that £230,000,” Wayne Daley, the council’s deputy leader, told Schools Week on Thursday.

“We have no evidence of how that money has been spent at all. What we are getting is a significant blame culture at Bright Tribe about trying to pass the buck onto others.”

The Haydon Bridge mess has prompted a large-scale consultation on the future of schools in the west of Northumberland, which put up to 14 schools at risk of closure.

But the council announced this week that just one will close, and the others will form closer partnerships in order to survive.

Haydon Bridge will remain under the oversight of an interim executive board put in by the council and Department for Education until a new sponsor is found.

Daley said Bright Tribe was “culpable” for the situation in Northumberland, and said the trust, “which has failed miserably so many communities across the UK”, must be held to account.

“They received public money to develop an educational offer, and they have failed to do that. For me, it is now critical that that money is returned.”

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.