A flagship academy trust championed by Tory leadership contender Michael Gove was warned on Monday that the government will terminate its funding if a number of demands are not met, including the resignation of its chair of governors.
The Durand Academy Trust, which runs Durand Academy in Stockwell, south London, had been promised £17 million by the government to help set up a separate state boarding school in West Sussex to which children in inner-city London are taken three nights a week.
When he was education secretary, Gove praised the venture as a response to a growing “educational underclass”, while one newspaper described it as “a Harry Potter-style education away from the area’s notorious gang culture”.
But now the school's controversial leader, Sir Greg Martin – who was knighted for services to education in 2013 during Gove's time as education secretary – has been formally told by the Department for Education he must step down and hold no further position as an employee or trustee if Durand Academy Trust is to retain its funding.
The move is the latest instalment in an escalating dispute between the government and Durand. Earlier this year BuzzFeed News revealed that the government had been forced to obtain a high court injunction to force the trust to allow auditors access to its books after it had issued a Financial Notice to Improve in March 2015.
This followed a Charity Commission investigation into Durand Academy Trust’s partner charity, the Durand Education Trust (DET), which was in turn sparked by a report in February 2015 from parliament’s public accounts committee that raised questions over ownership of the assets held by the trust.
The committee expressed concern that Martin, the then executive head, had “registered a dating agency at a leisure centre on the school site”. Martin resigned in 2015, but stayed on as chairman of governors.
The National Audit Office has revealed Martin was paid £229,138 in 2012–13. This was a substantial pay rise on the £146,415 he had earned in 2011–12. On top of this, he earned £161,000 as sole director of a leisure centre on the school's site.
Lord Nash, the schools minister, said on Monday: “I have today issued Durand Academy Trust with a pre-termination warning notice. This is not a decision I have taken lightly given the trust's commitment to providing an excellent education to its pupils, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds and difficult circumstances.
"However after repeatedly failing to address serious concerns about the school's governance, the effective use of public money and its failure to comply with the standard rules all academy trusts must follow, we have taken this decision to safeguard the future education of Durand's pupils.
"Durand Academy Trust now has the opportunity to respond to the issues raised in the notice and provide any representations. We will consider any response in deciding whether to continue the process of terminating the trust's funding agreement.”
Among other demands, the DfE's letter asks that directors at Durand Academy Trust who are also directors at DET should resign from one of the two posts. The same demand is made of acting executive headteacher Mark McLaughlin, who is told he should either resign from his role as acting head, or from any positions on DET or other companies on which Sir Greg Martin sits.
It also says that the DET should repay £1.8 million of £2 million that was transferred to it from Durand Academy Trust in 2013.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the trust said: “We were surprised to receive this letter as there was no warning from the EFA [Education Funding Agency] or the Department for Education. We are currently seeking legal advice and will respond in due course. Therefore, we are unable to provide further comment at this stage.”
Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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