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Academy trust collapse branded ‘outrageous’ by KCC education chief as government launch investigation into finances

PUBLISHED: 15:40 30 September 2016 | UPDATED: 15:40 30 September 2016

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Lilac Sky Schools Academy Trust (LSSAT) announced in July it transferring five Kent primary schools

A scandal that resulted in the collapse of an academy trust running a number of primary schools across Kent has been branded “outrageous” in the county council chamber.

Lilac Sky Schools Academy Trust (LSSAT) announced back in July it was working with the Department for Education (DfE) to transfer its nine schools – five of which are in Kent, namely Richmond, Morehall, Knockhall, Martello Grove and Thistle Hill Academies in Folkestone, Sheppey and Greenhithe.

Martello Grove and Morehall have since been absorbed by a freshly-launched trust, Turner Schools, after the LSSAT warned its closure was “an essential strategic move for the future... to serve the needs of our children”.

However, it has emerged that payments from the trust to firms run by founder, Trevor Averre-Beeson for services provided have totalled more than £1m over the past two years.

Consequently, the financial accounts for the year ending August 2015 reveal LSSAT ended the year some £665,972 in debt and with a pension deficit of £1.32m, bringing the overall shortfall to almost £2m.

The DfE’s Education Funding Agency (EFA) and a regional schools commissioner then intervened to prevent the trust from buying more consultancy services from its founders, before Mr Averre-Beeson later stepped down as a trustee.

Its accounts read: “The trust has taken a number of steps to ensure that the deficit is recovered during 2015-16.

“These include increasing the top slice [money contributed from individual academies to central funding] from the nine academies to seven per cent; charging academies for central services such as HR and payroll; cost cutting through reducing the number of staff employed in the central office and reducing significantly the spending on senior trust staff; and achieving economies of scale for central services.”

However, this didn’t prove to be enough as the trust was ultimately closed, before its demise was then discussed at Kent County Council’s education and young people’s services cabinet committee last week.

Swale council leader and Labour councillor on KCC, Roger Truelove, invited the county’s education chief, Patrick Leeson, to provide public confirmation of the details of the collapse.

“The initial impression given was that the withdrawal was a voluntary decision on behalf of the trust,” Cllr Truelove told the chamber.

“But I have a suspicion that the regional administrator was not satisfied with the management of these schools by this trust and it may involve financial issues.

“I hope you’re not going to say this is confidential because this is public sector schools funded by the public sector and the public have a right to know about the circumstances that leads to the trust being removed from running schools in Kent and Sussex.”

Mr Leeson confirmed the financial row, and said in response: “It has failed, that’s public knowledge, thankfully there was swift action on the part of the regional schools commissioner and national schools commissioner, and those schools have been taken away from Lilac Sky and passed to other sponsors.

“Clearly this is very disruptive for the schools concerned, very regrettable that this has happened.

“I have to say that Lilac Sky took a percentage of those schools’ budgets which was not tenable and those schools are now facing financial difficulty as a result and I think that’s outrageous.

“The schools have now been passed to other sponsors and we are quickly beginning to work with those sponsors in order to affect the transition of those schools to new arrangements.

“It is our job, clearly, to facilitate support and work with that as much as possible to ensure there is a smooth transition for those schools to new governance arrangements, new management arrangements, and to make sure the teaching staff and pupils that attend those schools experience as little disruption as possible.

“It has been a very unfortunate experience, it is extremely disappointing especially given the fact that two of our new primary schools in Kent were being managed by Lilac Sky.

“Let’s hope, let’s trust that nationally enough systems and procedures are being put into place to make sure that other academy chains do not similarly fail because this is incredibly disruptive for the schools concerned.”

The management of the trust’s finances attracted widespread criticism, and a letter sent out to parents of pupils at the Knockhall Academy in Greenhithe earlier this year revealed an investigation by the EFA was under way.

A spokesperson for the government department told KoS this week: “We are in discussion with the Lilac Sky Schools Academy Trust regarding their financial and governance processes.

“We cannot comment further while these discussions are ongoing.

“Academies are subject to much stricter oversight and accountability than council-run schools.

“One of the strengths of the academy system is that where issues of any kind are identified we can take swift action.”

However, education consultant Peter Read, who runs the kentadvice.co.uk website, felt the government failed to take action against “one of the very worst academy chains operating in Kent” quickly enough, as problems appeared clear as early as April 2015 and slammed a KCC U-turn.

The former Gravesend head teacher told KoS: “I am lost for words – just over 12 months ago Patrick Leeson was telling the council what a wonderful organisation LSSAT was.

“The government failed miserably to take action when this was flagged up because there were clear signs LSSAT was mismanaging its schools, like the shambles of the Furness School [a now-closed special school in Hextable], where together with KCC, it presided over a totally unacceptable deficit of £1.63m.

“The government needs to monitor academy chains more closely to stop this abuse of children’s schools and education that is happening.

“I’m afraid to say it also raises questions over the capability of KCC to monitor what’s going on, as exemplified by Furness.

“This is a company that submitted accounts which have since been discredited by the trustees, and like many other commercial academy chains it runs separate companies which extract considerable money out of school budgets to boost the profits of those companies.

“This is a national scandal and at a time when there is a shortage of money going to education, it has to be stopped.

“What ought to happen is the EFA rule that LSSAT should have no further dealings with state schools, which may be why it’s looking to move into the private education sector.”

LSSAT failed to respond to our enquiries.

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