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  1. ITV Report

'Inadequate': calls for answers over Wakefield City Academies Trust collapse

Wakefield City Academies Trust expanded to include schools across Yorkshire Credit: ITV News

There are fears the collapse of a Yorkshire academy trust could cost schools in the region more than a million pounds.

It was announced last month that Wakefield City Academies Trust would be pulling out of all 21 schools it runs - affecting more than 8000 pupils at schools in towns and cities including Doncaster, Sheffield, Shipley and Goole.

Nine of the 21 schools have been rated 'inadequate' by Ofsted, and only four are deemed to be 'good' or better.

Wakefield City Academy lent £800,000 to its parent trust Credit: ITV News

In an interview with ITV Calendar, Education Secretary Justine Greening did not guarantee that money the Trust is said to have removed from school budgets will be returned, amid allegations that it has taken more than £800,000 from one school alone.

Wakefield City Academy lent the money to its parent Trust, but governors say they have now been told not to expect it back.

"The multi-academy trust entered into very very clear commitments. It's not acceptable in terms of public bodies acting in good faith, and its implications for the school are quite clearly bad. It means they are more vulnerable to staffing reductions, it means they are more vulnerable to not having the full range of courses available to them."

– Kevin Swift, Chair of Governors, Wakefield City Academy

Justine Greening promised future 'investment' in the schools, as they transfer to new academy sponsors.

"There will be plans as to how we improve those schools and the investment that now needs to go into those schools, both in terms of how we can improve teaching and the curriculum, but also, where necessary, the school buildings."

– Justine Greening, Education Secretary

Meanwhile an internal report seen by ITV Calendar shows the scale of the problems at the Trust in the months before its collapse.

The document, dated June 2017, was written by interim CEO Chris Pickering, who was appointed in May to deliver a 'renewed focus on teaching and learning'.

He says the amount of money the Trust is taking from its schools is 'totally unacceptable' and 'placing severe pressure on academy budgets'. The report describes Wakefield City Academies Trust as an organisation with ‘inadequate leadership’, run on the basis of 'fear'.

"Past financial practice particularly in respect of contracts has been at best naive and at worst ill-considered. Those running a Trust have both legal and moral responsibilities. There are simply things that you do not do regardless of whether it is legally possible or not.

The Trust has been run on the basis of secrecy, a closed organisation typified by a lack of transparency."

– Chris Pickering, Interim CEO, Wakefield City Academies Trust

Justine Greening said the Government had stepped in 'quickly' to 'improve the quality of education' at the schools. But the report notes that the 'realignment' of the Trust has had to be put on hold 'due to the lead up to the General Election', and further documents seen by ITV Calendar suggest the Government knew as early as October/November 2016 that the Trust was failing - leading to questions as to why it didn't step in sooner.

Reporter: Did you step in quickly? We’ve got schools telling us that you knew that the Trust was failing, and in the time since then the Trust has taken their money.

Justine Greening: The reason we stepped in was because of quality of education and the fact that it was poor.

Reporter: But you knew in October, November last year that this Trust was failing?

Justine Greening: The first steps we took were of course to talk with the Trust about how we could work with the Trust to raise standards. What happened after that, was that that clearly became, it was obvious that they weren’t going to be able to raise standards and that’s why we decided to take clear action to make sure that we could step in and re-broker the schools.

– Transcript of ITV Calendar interview

The internal report also says the academy has 'grown at a faster rate than it has been able to develop capacity to facilitate improvements.' This raises further questions about why the Government allowed the Trust to expand at such a rate over the course of four years.

Reporter: Their own report said that they didn’t have the capacity to develop the schools. Your department had let them take on more schools. Is there some government responsibility here for the collapse of Wakefield City Academy Trust?

Justine Greening: The growth of the Trust had been agreed with the Trust. I think clearly it took on schools that it was not able to deliver improvements in.

Reporter: Shouldn’t the government have had oversight of that?

Justine Greening: Well Wakefield had been an outstanding school and actually it had had very good performance and even when you look at the Ofsteds, up until 2015/2016 they were doing very well. What happened was that suddenly in 2016 we saw those results take a nose-dive and at that point we sat down with the Trust to talk about how we could get things back on track. It was clear we couldn’t get things back on track and they just didn’t have the capacity to do that.

– Transcript of ITV Calendar interview

Labour MPs have now stepped up their calls for the Government to open up about what it was doing in the run-up to the collapse.

"I think we need to know from the Education Department what on earth they were doing over very many months when it's clear from this report there were really serious problems with the management at the Trust. They don't seem to have done anything in this period and they've allowed the Trust to keep taking the money from the schools all of this time. It's completely unfair."

– Yvette Cooper MP - Pontefract, Normanton and Castleford (Lab)

The Government is still pursuing the expansion of multi-academy trusts - but new guidance was issued in December 2016, six months after Justine Greening took up her position. She admitted to ITV Calendar that had Government regulations been tighter, the Trust may not have been allowed to grow as it did.

"I think if clear process had been in place earlier with Wakefield, that would have helped stop it from taking on quite so many schools when perhaps it had not got the capacity to be able to deliver improvements."

– Justine Greening, Education Secretary

Wakefield City Academies Trust said they will be making no further statement on any of the issues raised.