'It was all about money' – Former staff speak out about troubled academy trust
PUBLISHED: 08:42 08 November 2018 | UPDATED: 12:58 16 November 2018
Former senior staff at an Ipswich primary school which is run by a now troubled academy trust have warned of a debt legacy that could take years to clear.
The staff claim Bright Tribe’s leadership of Castle Hill Infant and Junior School starved its resources after taking it over in December 2014.
Bright Tribe recently agreed that all its schools, including Castle Hill and Cliff Lane in Ipswich, Alde Valley in Leiston and Colchester Academy would be “re-brokered” to new trusts.
The decision followed growing criticism of leadership, including allegations made by BBC Panorama in September that the trust received large sums of public money for building and fire safety work that it failed to carry out.
While no Suffolk school featured in the documentary, the former staff at Castle Hill claim financial problems were widespread.
Annette Watson-Morse, who was in charge of special education needs at Castle Hill, said some staff at the school were spending hundreds of pounds a month on teaching materials which Bright Tribe did not supply.
She said the “final straw” came when she was asked by the trust’s finance department to provide a spending plan for a budget she did not have.
Another senior staff member, who had previously had financial oversight in her role, said: “I was extremely uncomfortable with not knowing where the money was going.
“At all times we were given the bottom line, ‘please cut as much from the budget as possible’.”
The anonymous staff member claimed Bright Tribe’s schools would face “very hard decisions” to balance the books – for a long time to come.
“For me, the big bug bear was that Bright Tribe was not putting enough money into the infrastructure of the school,” they said. “It wasn’t about education. It was all about money.”
Other controversial practices, which the staff claim were aimed at saving the trust money, are alleged to have included encouraging teaching assistants to become “higher level teaching assistants” so they could lead classes without fully qualified teachers.
The staff also claimed the trust cut spending on teaching materials including textbooks.
Ms Watson-Moore said her job role was expanded to cover the work previously done by another staff member, meaning she often worked 100-hour weeks.
Both staff left the school with concerns about the trust’s leadership.
“I don’t believe you can run schools like a business to make money,” the anonymous staff member said.
The claims made by the former staff come amid growing concern about the state of school finances, which saw thousands of headteachers march on Westminster in September to demand better funding.
But while many schools are reported to be suffering from staff cuts, bigger class sizes and declining support for vulnerable pupils, due to cuts, the troubles at Bright Tribe have been blamed on the leadership of the trust’s former executive team.
Rumours of the trust’s closure were first raised by Schools Week in July.
However it was not until after the Panorama investigation aired in September that Bright Tribe confirmed all six of its remaining schools, including those in Suffolk and Essex, were to be rebrokered.
Responding to the latest allegations, a Bright Tribe spokesman said: “The trust has been operating under new interim executive leadership, with new trustees, and they have been working extremely hard since their appointments to investigate all these historic issues as a matter of urgency.
“The new trustees have also recently agreed that all the trust’s schools, including Castle Hill and Cliff Lane, will be re-brokered, meaning that strong new academy trusts will lead them.
“The respective regional schools commissioners and the Department for Education will identify and decide new sponsors as swiftly as possible, working with the trust and each school’s leadership.
“The new multi-academy trusts will provide the expertise, support and stability needed to allow the academies to be run successfully and will ensure pupils get the first-class education they deserve.”
The trust’s interim chief executive officer Angela Barry, and interim chief operating officer Lee Miller are said to have a track record of running successful academy trusts.
The BBC Panorama investigation into Bright Tribe appeared to mark the beginning of the end for the troubled trust.
Aired in September, the documentary made a number of allegations about the trust’s leadership and financial management.
The trust was accused of receiving large sums of public money for building and fire safety work it failed to carry out. The programme alleged Colchester Academy received £566,000 to demolish and rebuild unstable walls in its sports centre, but instead carried out cheap repairs which insiders said cost just £60,000. Further allegations included that Bright Tribe failed to fire stop a ceiling void and install more than 100 new fire doors at the school’s sports centre, despite claiming £255,000 in funding.
Other claims focused on the trust’s northern schools.
Lawyers for Bright Tribe sponsor representative Michael Dwan said at the time, “each and every allegation raised by the BBC is completely denied”.
Bright Tribe’s history
Bright Tribe’s operations in the region began in 2014 – soon after the trust sponsored its first school.
Having already established a network of academies in the north-west of England, the trust announced in December 2014 that three Ipswich primary schools had joined its “family”.
Castle Hill Infant School, Castle Hill Junior School and Cliff Lane Primary School were the first in East Anglia to convert as Bright Tribe academies. The following month, Alde Valley School in Leiston also joined the trust.
Colchester Academy joined Bright Tribe in April 2015, having previously been sponsored by Colchester Institute.
Along with its partner, Bright Tribe Adventure Learning Academy, the trusts converted 12 schools in a year. By February of this year, however, the trust announced it was pulling out of its northern schools. The trust announced it was pulling out of the remaining six schools in September.
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