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City Academies and Government Corruption

John Simkin

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Rebecca Smithers and David Pallister

Monday January 16, 2006

The Guardian


An adviser to the government's £5bn city academy programme yesterday resigned after it was revealed that he had promised that wealthy individuals who agreed to make large donations to expand the programme would be rewarded with knighthoods and even peerages.

Des Smith, a secondary headteacher who was also a council member of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), which helps the government to recruit sponsors for the academies, stepped down from the advisory post after admitting that he had been "naive" in comments he had made to an undercover reporter.

Contacted by the Guardian yesterday at his home in east London, Mr Smith said: "I have resigned today from the council. I have been shattered by this experience. I was naive. I shouldn't have said what I did. I'm desperately sorry."

The head told the Sunday Times reporter that big financial donations to help set up the schools would guarantee an OBE, CBE, knighthood or even a peerage.

He remains head of All Saints Catholic School and Technology College, Barking and Dagenham, a former Roman Catholic comprehensive which has been a specialist technology college since 1994 and where he has been credited with making great improvements.

He had also been working as a consultant, via the council of the SSAT, to its chairman, Sir Cyril Taylor. Mr Smith said he had not been in touch with Sir Cyril about his decision to stand down.

The Sunday Times reported that Mr Smith told a journalist posing as a potential donor's PR assistant that "the prime minister's office would recommend someone like [the donor] for an OBE, a CBE or a knighthood".

Asked if this would be just for getting involved in the academies, he responded: "Yes ... they call them services to education. I would say to Cyril's office that we've got to start writing to the prime minister's office." For a donation of £10m, "you could go to the House of Lords".

Earlier the defence secretary, John Reid, speaking on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme, said: "I don't know who Mr Des Smith is ... He doesn't speak with any authority for the government at all. As far as I'm aware, he doesn't speak for the Labour party either."

He added that people who contribute to the city academies programme usually have made other contributions to society. "If you look at the honours list, you will see that the range of people who receive honours range far and wide beyond those who make monetary contributions."

Six sponsors who have made gifts since the programme to establish academies was launched in 2001 have been honoured under Labour.

City academies - described by ministers as independent state schools - are funded directly from Whitehall, attracting government funding for the lion's share of the £25m capital cost after individuals and other donors commit to sponsorship of £2m.

The government has hailed the involvement of business in the schools as bringing "a distinctive approach to school leadership, drawing on the skills of sponsors and other supporters." But critics have questioned why businessmen with no record in education should be allowed to have a role in the running of schools. There are 27 established so far, which have largely replaced secondary schools that were failing.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, had called for Mr Smith to step down from the council, saying that his position was "untenable."

The SSAT describes itself as "the lead advisory body on the specialist schools and academies initiatives ... providing advice and support for schools seeking to achieve or maintain specialist school status and to sponsors wishing to establish academies."

Sir Cyril told the Sunday Times: "In no way is giving money to the academy linked to the award of an honour."

Downing Street said: "It's nonsense to suggest that honours are awarded for giving money to an academy."

The education department added: "This is not the view of the department nor has this view been expressed by the department. We are clear that the notion is complete and total nonsense."

Sir Cyril could not be contacted for comment.

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Rebecca Smithers, education editor

Tuesday June 13, 2006

The Guardian

The government's flagship academy programme designed to raise educational standards will next month be subjected to scrutiny by the high court for the first time, with a series of high-profile legal challenges by separate groups of parents.

One is being brought by a mother seeking to block a new academy on the doorstep of Lord Adonis, architect of the controversial scheme, in the north London borough of Islington.

The challenges focus on an alleged reduction of parents' and pupils' human rights at academies - which are legally independent - and means that the regular education acts which give parents and their children rights in ordinary state schools do not apply. Lawyers for the parents hope to prove that the consultation processes for the new schools are flawed, because parents do not have access to the vital "funding agreements" - which vary from school to school - in which legal obligations on key areas such as admissions, exclusions and provision for special educational needs are set out.

The central charge overall is that parents and children will have fewer rights at the new, semi-independent academies than they do in mainstream, maintained schools. There are dates lined up for three court hearings into legal challenges to proposed academies: in Merton, south-west London, on July 5; Islington on July 19; and the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, also likely to be next month. The challenges have been co-ordinated by London solicitors Leigh Day, working closely with David Wolfe of Matrix chambers, which specialises in human rights law. They say many more are in the pipeline.

The fact that the challenges are being brought by parents is in itself a blow for the Department for Education and Skills, because one of its staunchest defences of the controversial scheme has been that parents are keen on the new schools. Academies qualify for taxpayers' funding of up to £25m after a cash injection of £2m from individual sponsors. There are 27 academies, and the DfES says it is halfway to its target of 200 academies open or in the pipeline by 2010. It expects to reach the 110 mark in the next few weeks.

In Islington parents have won the right to a judicial review of plans to demolish a popular primary school to make way for a new four-to-16 "through" academy near the home of schools minister Lord Adonis. Hayley Powers, a mother, claims that the Office for the Schools Adjudicator, which approved the school closure, failed to take into account the fact that children's human rights would be undermined because the safeguards granted to pupils at other state schools would be lost with the switch to "independent" academy status.

But the first high court hearing will involve a case brought by a parent, Rob MacDonald, against plans to switch his son's secondary school, Tamworth Manor, in Merton, south London, to an academy from September. Mr MacDonald claims that the school was not failing, and that consultation was rushed through. Local people voted 4:1 against the academy programme in a ballot held by Merton, but the council still pressed ahead with closure. Also expected next month is a challenge by mother of 10 Robina Allum, who lives on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent. She believes the education secretary's decision for at least one academy was taken on "a wholly flawed factual basis".

The Department for Education and Skills said of the forthcoming legal challenges: "We totally reject the claim that parents or pupils in academies have fewer rights than those in any other school. The biggest denial of human rights is a bad education. There has been no successful legal challenge against an academy on the grounds that they are breaking the Human Rights Act." Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "If parents are going to such lengths in trying to find ways in which they can challenge and even halt academies, this gives the lie to the idea that parents are clamouring for academies."

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I believe this story goes to the heart of Blair’s corrupt administration. The main intention of Blair’s specialist schools (and the recent city academies) is to bring in money from the private sector to help fund education. On the surface it sounds a great idea. However, as Thatcher discovered, wealthy businessmen are unwilling to give money to help state education unless there is something in it for them. You will get the odd religious nutcase to put money into a city academy as long as they are allowed to teach creationism (as with the Middlesbrough City Academy). However, most will only entertain the idea if they can be given something in return. So far the concern has been the granting of honours. This is clearly part of the deal. Since 1997 city academy sponsors have received five knighthoods (Frank Lowe, David Garrard, Clive Bourne, Martin Arbib and Euan Harper) one CBE (Roger de Haan) and one OBE (Jack Petchey).

However, peerages, knighthoods, etc. have never been the main aspect of this corruption scandal. Rich businessmen don’t mind the odd title but what they are really interested in is government contracts. It is this aspect of city academy funding that journalists should be really investigating.

Report on the BBC News website:


A head teacher who helped find sponsors for the government's flagship city academies programme has been arrested as part of a cash for honours probe.

Des Smith sparked a row earlier this year when he suggested donors would be given honours in exchange for funding.

He quit his post with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which helps find sponsors, after the story.

Mr Smith, 60, was arrested in east London under the 1925 Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act.

He is currently in custody at a London police station.

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust helps the government recruit education sponsors. Set up in September 2005, its president is Lord Levy, Tony Blair's chief political fundraiser and close friend.

Mr Smith quit his post on the SATT council in January after admitting he had been "naive" when talking to a reporter posing as a potential donor's PR assistant.

He reportedly told the Sunday Times that "the prime minister's office would recommend someone like [the donor] for an OBE, a CBE or a knighthood".

After his resignation he told the Guardian he had "been shattered by the experience. I was naive, I shouldn't have said what I did. I'm desperately sorry".

Downing Street said at the time it was "nonsense to suggest that honours are awarded for giving money to an academy".

Mr Smith remains headmaster of the All Saints Catholic School and Technology College, Barking and Dagenham.

Local Labour MP Jon Cruddas told the BBC Mr Smith had greatly improved results at the school and should be judged on his "21 years as a significant local public servant".

"He is a fantastic head teacher," he added.

In a separate development, elections watchdog the Electoral Commission publishes a new draft code of conduct on reporting loans in the wake of discussions with the main political parties.

It says the parties agree to report any loan more than £5,000 - or more than £1,000 if the donor has given another amount that needed to be reported in that year.

The draft code says "this would apply whether or not the party regards the loan as having been made on commercial terms".

The cash-for-honours inquiry was originally launched in response to a complaint by Scottish and Welsh nationalist MPs that Labour had broken the law preventing the sale of honours such as peerages and knighthoods.

It has since been widened to cover the activities of other parties.

The investigation is being led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who has said he is prepared to widen the investigation to consider more general allegations of corruption.

It followed reports that the House of Lords Appointments Commission had blocked the appointment of four of Prime Minister Tony Blair's nominations for peerages - all wealthy businessmen who had made loans to Labour.

None was on the list of new working life peers when it was published on Monday. One Tory nominee - who had loaned the party £2m - also missed out on a seat in the upper house.

Mr Yates has already told MPs that he is prepared to widen the investigation to consider more general allegations of corruption.

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust describes itself as the "leading national body for secondary education in England, part funded by the DfES (Education Department), delivering the government's Specialist Schools and Academies programme.

Anyone found guilty under the 1925 Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act - designed to deal with those who both give and accept honours under inducement - could face imprisonment for up to two years or fined an unlimited amount.

The Act was introduced after the scandal of the early 1920s when David Lloyd George was offering peerages and lesser honours at a price.

It merged over the weekend that Allan Johnson had a meeting with Adrian Beecroft about donating £2m to Pickering High School. Beecroft duly obliged. However, he did not get a peerage for this donation. I wonder if the donation had anything to do with the fact that Beecroft’s company, Apax Partners, was facing the possibility of a DFI (Department of Trade and Industry) investigation at the time. It never happened of course. At the time of the meeting, Johnson was a minister at the DFI.

Then there is the case of Patricia Hewett, the Health Secretary. She had several meetings with David Samworth (the owner of the company which makes Ginsters pastries). Samworth was concerned about Hewitt imposing advertising and health warnings on his products. This never happened. Maybe it was because Samworth decided to sponsor the New College Academy in Leicester.

Then there is the case of the junior health minister, Stephen Ladyman. Before becoming an MP he worked for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. In October 2004, Ladyman negotiated a new pricing agreement for prescription drugs on the National Health Service with the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). The ABPI is dominated by pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer. Complaints were made about this negotiated agreement and the Office of Fair Trading subsequently launched an investigation.

Ladyman used his connections with Pfizer to persuade the company to give £1m to the Marlowe Academy in Kent. Ladyman insists there is no connection between these two deals.

Phil Hope, MP for Corby, a junior minister under John Prescott (1999-2005) was involved in granting permission for the Bee Bee Developments to build thousands of homes in Corby. He also persuaded the same company to part-sponsor the Corby Community College.

It is no coincidence that there are so many examples of corruption connected to school funding. Lord Levy is president of New Labour's "Specialist Schools and Academies Trust". Unless they are religious nutcases (Sir Peter Vardy) who want these schools to teach creationism (Middlesbrough City Academy and Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead), the only ones willing to fund these schools are those who want political favours done. It is all part of the corrupt system installed by Tony Blair.

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As a retailer of educational software, I am not impressed by city academies so far. Few appear to be spending their money on educational software and we have recently had to take one city academy to the small claims court for failing to pay a trivial £30 bill that was overdue by many months. It cost them over £100 pounds in the end, which is not exactly a model of good financial management.

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Under the City Academy scheme, public assets (land, buildings paid for by public funds, an income stream) are handed over to private entities to run schools. There is no choice, there is no competition, there is no market. It is unclear how the government can get this assets back. I suppose we will be told, like the railways, water, etc., that we can't afford to bring them back into private ownership. Much of the land is high value land in inner city areas. Not a bad investment for £2 million plus a small donation to party funds!

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Have you heard of Prof Brian Caldwell over there? He's an Australian first famous for the self-managing school, now running round Oz selling PD and his latest book after being in the UK, telling us that we should bulldoze all our state schools and rebuild them with public/private partnerships.

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Have you heard of Prof Brian Caldwell over there? He's an Australian first famous for the self-managing school, now running round Oz selling PD and his latest book after being in the UK, telling us that we should bulldoze all our state schools and rebuild them with public/private partnerships.

He is probably in the pay of one of the large multinationals getting involved in PFIs in the UK.

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David Hencke and Matthew Taylor

Tuesday October 17, 2006

The Guardian

Two city academies singled out by the National Audit Office as poorly performing schools have cost the taxpayer more than £101m to run - one costing nearly three times the government's original estimate, according to a Commons committee report out today.

The costs of Bexley Business Academy, south-east London - part financed by Sir David Garrard, the Labour donor caught up in the "cash for honours" scandal, and the Unity City Academy, Middlesbrough, - part funded by Sir Peter Vardy, a Christian evangelical car dealer, are respectively £58.2m and £43.6m. The figures in the Commons public accounts committee report follow a question from Richard Bacon, Conservative MP for Norfolk South, and criticism of the academy programme from Ian Davidson, Labour MP for Glasgow South-west.

The report is highly critical of the government's overall record on school provision, saying one million children are in schools which perform badly, and is critical of light touch regulation by Ofsted, the education standards regulator. But it was the disclosure of spending levels on the two city academies that brought angry criticism from MPs and unions yesterday.

Mr Bacon said they raised questions about value-for-money for the whole city academy programme - particularly when the government originally estimated that each school would only cost £20m to set up and run. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "These are extraordinary sums. Every school needs additional funding and throwing this kind of money at just two schools while inevitably depriving others is of no benefit to the education service. There will be children up and down the country whose education is not being promoted sufficiently well because their schools cannot afford computers and other equipment and here we have huge amounts being thrown at a few selected academies."

The Middlesbrough school had been the subject of a poor report from Ofsted and the Bexley school has been attacked for failing to raise standards. The Bexley Business Academy says it is producing much better results than neighbouring schools, given it had a high proportion of children with special needs.

Sir David Garrard, whose peerage was blocked after it was revealed he secretly loaned Labour £2.3m at the last election, had pressed the Department for Education to increase spending on his Bexley school, warning he might have to pull out if they failed to provide extra funds. Sir Peter Vardy also demanded extra funding.

Forty-six academies have opened, and by next September there should be 80 with a further 100 or so in the pipeline. The government wants to open 200 by 2010. A report this summer claimed many suffered from poor pupil discipline, bullying and badly designed buildings.

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "The funding for both Bexley and Unity Academies is within normal funding parameters. The figures stated in the PAC report include several years of general funding for the costs of running a school, which is allocated in the same way to academies as any other school, as well as capital funding for the initial building work."

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Des Smith, the former paid consultant for city academies, who triggered the cash for honours inquiry, when his comments to an undercover Sunday Times reporter, has launched a bitter attack on Tony Blair, claiming that he should be arrested at dawn and thrown in a police cell like he was.

What is more, he now admits that Blair’s policy of city academies is a complete disaster: “Money has been wasted in the most appalling way. Many of them are the same schools with the same problems, just with new buildings.”

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