One of the best-paid academy trust chief executives in England spent more than £1,000 of public cash on “premium economy flights” to an Apple conference in California.
Auditors have raised concerns the upgrade by Hull Collaborative boss Estelle Macdonald last year “could be seen as excessive and unnecessary expenditure”.
It is the latest example of a trust getting into hot water after leaders visited the tech giant.
One estimated as many as 200 leaders have attended summits in the US hosted by Apple, which it says are professional development conferences.
But Schools Week spoke to two leaders who turned down the trips after feeling “uncomfortable about flying on public money” – while another compared the events to a “sales pitch”.
Some trusts later rolled out Apple products in their schools. It’s understood that while the international firm pays for accommodation and the event, schools are expected to cover the flights.
Auditors flag ‘issue’ with Apple flights
Hull Collaborative has now launched a review into its “policies linked to travel, staff development and training” after auditors flagged the “financial issue”.
The accounts for the year ending August 31, 2022, noted: “There was a transaction relating to the CEO travelling to America for an Apple leadership conference with other multiacademy trust CEOs.
“The expenditure was for the CEO’s premium economy flights at a cost of £1,021 with other costs being incurred for travel to and from the airport as well as an overnight stay at the departure airport.”
The auditors added this was “a regularity issue… as the upgrade flight costs could be seen as excessive and unnecessary expenditure and may not be in line with the trust achieving best value for money”.
Macdonald’s £205,000 salary for running her 16-school group puts her among the top 35 best-paid chief executives in the country.
Apple trip ‘part of exercise to improve ICT’
A spokesperson for the chain said the visit was part of an “exercise to assess how Apple products could enrich the ICT curriculum”.
This led “to a trust-wide initiative, which will launch in 2023-24, not only delivering huge
advances to ICT but also the wider curriculum”. She would not say what the “huge advances” were.
But the spokesperson insisted the flights were “approved by trustees prior to the trip” and that “all other expenses were in line with existing policies”.
“On review the additional cost incurred for the flights was in the region of £300. The trust is reviewing policies linked to travel, staff development and training… with a view to ensuring this does not happen again.”
A government investigation in 2020 found Olive Tree Primary School trust in Bolton had paid more than £900 for its chair to stay in a top Chicago hotel while attending an Apple event.
CEOs in hot water over Apple conferences
Foreign travel expenses for trustees were forbidden and chair Abdul Chohan – who also worked as a consultant for the technology company – had to repay the expenses.
Windsor Academy Trust was at the centre of controversy two years ago after it emerged then deputy chief executive Dawn Haywood had visited Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, before a chain-wide iPad scheme was wheeled out.
Heywood, who is now the chief executive, was invited on the trip in 2020 with 19 other
trust leaders. The trust paid for her economy travel and she paid for expenses, while accommodation and attendance were covered as part of Apple’s international leader programme.
Windsor had asked some families to contribute towards an iPad when the scheme was rolled out. But a spokesperson stressed the chain-wide programme was now fully funded and that “any parents who had paid initially have been fully reimbursed”.
New Bridge trust boss Graham Quinn said in a blog post he came back from Cupertino in 2018 “with a vision of rolling out a 1:1 [iPad] project”.
‘I wasn’t comfortable flying on public money’
Documents published by IT firm Academia the Technology Group noted that Woodland
Academy Trust director of education Julie Carson had journeyed to Apple’s base as well.
The papers said the trip helped her see “Apple would dramatically enhance [the chain’s] use of technology, offering the variation that their existing curriculum lacked”. Woodland has also launched a trust-wide iPad programme.
But other leaders have voiced concerns. One, who did not want to be named, said he
“was not comfortable flying on public money”, claiming “people come back saying they were asked not to say what the course content was”.
Meanwhile, a chief executive familiar with the trips described them as “effectively a sales pitch. How do you then get away with sending someone to California on the taxpayer’s dollar?”
School leaders’ union ASCL has organised three study visits to Apple with sector bosses in recent years.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary who led two of the trips, said they “offer insights
into organisational culture, leadership and strategy, and the potential for digital technology to improve opportunities for teachers and young people”.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.