'Staggering' £1m cost of special school's staff suspensions revealed
PUBLISHED: 05:30 04 July 2019
Mass staff suspensions at a Suffolk special school have cost taxpayers more than £1m - and some cases remain unresolved two years later.
Figures released following a Freedom of Information request show The Bridge School in Ipswich has spent almost £290,000 on the salaries of staff suspended since September 2017 plus £840,000 on the 24 agency workers drafted in to cover their absence.
Calls have been made for an independent inquiry to be held into the £1.1m costs, which represent a third of the school's total annual budget.
The huge increase in spending came after Suffolk County Council's (SCC) intervention at the school in October 2017, which saw long-serving former headteacher Odran Doran removed from his post and an interim executive board (IEB) drafted in. The IEB, led by Jan Hatchell, who was also headteacher at Riverwalk School in Bury St Edmunds, carried out further suspensions in the months that followed.
Parents and governors said the suspensions brought "chaos" to the school, which saw its previous 'good' Ofsted status slide to 'inadequate' by May 2018.
The school would not confirm the exact number of suspensions but said it was between five and 10.
Howard Needham, who resigned as chairman of governors over his refusal to suspend Mr Doran, said he knew of eight staff who had been suspended - and at least four cases which remained unresolved due to ongoing investigations, appeals or pending employment tribunals.
"These disciplinary processes have been going on for an extraordinarily long time," he said.
SCC has repeatedly refused to give details of the accusations, saying investigations were ongoing.
However, some are understood to centre on the use of a computerised locking system, configured so only staff could open certain doors. Minutes from a meeting with council officers in October 2017 refer to "unlawful imprisonment of pupils".
But Mr Needham, who has 30 years' experience in education and local government, said the accusations he was aware of were "essentially technical and administrative in nature" and could have been dealt with through guidance or training.
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He said the full costs of the suspensions could be far higher once SCC's spending on investigations, disciplinary hearings and any settlements made to staff were included.
SCC said the additional costs had been taken from the school's budget "without impacting on spend in other areas".
But as the school was in deficit when it converted to an academy with the Unity Schools Partnership last month, SCC had to spend taxpayers' money from its own budget to clear the balance, which was £184,200.
Jack Abbott, Labour's education spokesman at SCC, said the numbers were "staggering" and the true cost of the council's intervention could be "much higher".
"This is money that should have been going to children's education," he added.
"Every step of the way the council have looked to shift the blame onto somebody else, but it was their bungled intervention that created, exacerbated and maintained these problems, the effects of which are being felt more than a year and a half later. Why does no one ever take any responsibility?"
Christopher Hudson, who represents SCC's Pinewood division, where the school is located, said he was "worried and concerned" about the loss of public money. "It strikes me that this is a real can of worms and perhaps an independent inquiry is now essential," he added.
Mr Abbott also backed calls for an inquiry, saying: "We need to know the truth about what happened here."
Unions said they were "disappointed" so many staff had been suspended for lengthy periods. UEA, Voice and UNISON said in a joint statement: "This had a detrimental impact on pupils and on the school budget.
"Suspension should be avoided except in exceptional cases and any suspension should be for the shortest possible period to enable investigation into any allegations."
The unions said senior positions should be filled by experienced staff from Suffolk schools, rather than agencies "as this is inevitably more expensive".
An SCC spokesman said: "Suspending staff is not undertaken lightly and decisions were made in the best interests of the children attending the school. We are not able to comment individual cases or on ongoing cases."