UNISON calls for new government inquiry into academy chain accused of misusing public funds

Ministers seem to have allowed a situation to develop where commercial interests overrode taxpayers’ interests and the public good. Pupils, parents and the public purse have all paid the price.

The government must launch a fresh inquiry into Bright Tribe following new allegations that the troubled multi-academy trust has misused public money, says UNISON today (Monday).

It follows revelations set to be broadcast tonight by BBC’s Panorama programme that Bright Tribe – which runs ten schools in England – received funding for work on schools that was either not finished or simply never carried out.

The union, whose findings contributed to Panorama’s investigation, says the government has failed to act properly.

Three years ago UNISON made a complaint to the then regulator, the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and subsequently to the National Audit Office (NAO), about the Bright Tribe academy chain, sponsored by Helping Hands Trust Ltd, a charity set up by multi-millionaire businessman Michael Dwan.

UNISON’s complaint in July 2015 was the original trigger for an investigation by the EFA into financial management, internal audit arrangements and the way contracts for goods and services were being awarded.

With no apparent bidding process, the contracts were awarded to companies linked to Michael Dwan or other key figures at Bright Tribe and the Adventure Learning Academies Trust (ALAT), Bright Tribe’s sister academy chain.

While the EFA was still investigating Bright Tribe, the government gave it more money – this time £1m to help turn around underperforming schools in the North.

UNISON, unhappy with this and the EFA’s response to its complaint, sent a report* to the NAO about potential undeclared conflicts of interest at Bright Tribe and ALAT.

UNISON says the latest revelations highlighted by Panorama raise important questions about the use of public funds, the ability of the academies regulator to protect taxpayers’ money and the lack of funds the regulator has to do its work.

The union believes there was a culture of fear across Bright Tribe’s academies, with pressure put on staff to sign non-disclosure agreements, which may have led to commercial interests being protected at the expense of pupils, parents and taxpayers.

UNISON is calling on the government to carry out a detailed inquiry into the allegations made by Panorama. This is so proper checks can be made on academy spending, and academy schools can become more accountable to local communities.

UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “It’s unclear why the government decided to give Bright Tribe £1m while it was still under investigation. Ministers seem to have allowed a situation to develop where commercial interests overrode taxpayers’ interests and the public good. Pupils, parents and the public purse have all paid the price.

“This raises serious questions about how not-for-profit organisations are audited and what happens to the squeezed public resources that are meant to be spent educating our children.  An inquiry is needed urgently to ensure that all lessons have been learned.”

Michael Dwan’s lawyers have said “each and every allegation raised by the BBC” is completely denied.  

Notes to editors:
-* UNISON’s report Conflicts of Interest? is here.
Panorama is due to be broadcast on BBC1 at 8.30pm this evening (Monday). UNISON’s head of education Jon Richards was interviewed as part of the programme.
– UNISON made a complaint in July 2015 to the EFA (now the Education and Skills Funding Agency). It responded by saying it had taken the allegations raised seriously and that officials had been asked to investigate ‘as a matter of urgency.’
– In January 2016 UNISON submitted Conflicts of Interest? to the NAO because it was concerned by what it felt was an inadequate response from the EFA.
 UNISON told the NAO it was concerned that the arrangements created a perception that Bright Tribe and ALAT were developing as ‘undisclosed subsidiaries’ of ES Management Services Ltd (the parent company of companies connected to the academy sponsor’s representative Michael Dwan).
– Conflicts of Interest? identified at least four undeclared related party transactions where payments appeared to have been made to companies whose shareholders included trustees of the academy trusts or that were controlled by them.
– The report also identified financial discrepancies between two sets of accounts, significant sums of money spent on secondments and core teams in both academy trusts that were virtually identical.

– It also identified that the business address of Bright Tribe was also the registered office for ES Management Services Ltd and a host of other companies ultimately controlled by Michael Dwan.
– Alarm bells were initially raised by a UNISON organiser based in the East of England, Hazel Corby, who noticed that staff at the Colchester Academy were being transferred to companies that had the same Stockport address as the Bright Tribe headquarters.
– Michael Dwan’s charity Helping Hands Trust Ltd withdrew from Bright Tribe and ALAT in July 2018.

Media contacts:
Liz Chinchen M: 07778 158175 E: press@unison.co.uk
Clare Santry M: 07944 950409 E: c.santry@unison.co.uk