The following story narrowly missed publication by Private Eye recently. I think this follow-up to a diary article which ran in my Guardian education column last year is something the public should know about, so am publishing it here.
It puts a new spin on voluntary work. Last year, I was told that the chief executive of a group of academy schools was doing so on an unpaid basis. Now, it has emerged, following the publication of the chain’s annual accounts, that a company of which he was a director was paid nearly £80,000 for the year. The Chapel St chain stands by its original comment to me, saying he was in the role on a voluntary basis for three months at the time of my enquiry.
Last April, it emerged that David Brown, chief executive of south London-based Chapel St Community Schools Trust (CSCST), was curiously combining that role with a stint as interim executive headteacher of Al-Hijrah school, 100 miles away in Birmingham. Birmingham council said he worked for Al-Hijrah three to four days a week. CSCST, whose schools are billed as having a “Christian ethos”, has five primary and two secondary schools, spread from Merton and Wandsworth via Oxford to Lancashire. (See the third story here: http://bit.ly/2o1AfTS).
How was Brown’s dual role possible? When I inquired, in research for that piece for my Guardian education diary, Russell Rook, who as chief executive of an overarching group of charities running Chapel St Community Schools Trust was effectively Brown’s boss, said that Brown was working “part-time”. “David now gives his time to the Charity entirely on a voluntary basis. This is well known to people in the Trust”, Rook said in an email to me sent on March 16th, 2016.
Yet Chapel St’s recently-published accounts (http://bit.ly/2nqxFEd) for the year to August 31st, 2016 state that Brown was in fact “paid [during that year] under a consultancy arrangement”. During 2015-16, Deran Consulting Ltd, a company in which Brown holds half of the shares, received £77,952. In 2014-15, the company received £38,700. There was no mention in the accounts of any voluntary work.
Chapel St was set up mainly by staff who once worked for the Salvation Army. Rook is a former director of ALOVE, the Salvation Army’s youth wing.
CSCST’s 2015-16 accounts list the payment to Brown that year as one of several “instances of material irregularity, impropriety or funding non-compliance” as “the Chief Executive has been, and is being, paid under a consultancy arrangement without due consideration by the Board of worker status or value for money”.
The accounts say that CSCST had a £1.4m deficit and a loan last year from the government body which finances academies, the Education Funding Agency, “to be repaid from future surpluses”. Trustees said they “had a reasonable expectation” CSCST could continue to operate for the foreseeable future, provided the EFA could continue to come up with cash support “beyond the normal funding arrangements”.
The EFA ordered an investigation into CSCST’s finances last year. Reporting accountant Critchleys LLP is quoted in the 2015-16 accounts listing eight concerns, including failure to subject contracts to a competitive tendering process and “failure to maintain full and accurate accounting records during the year”.
CSCST said: “For a large part of 2015-16 David Brown carried out his responsibilities at the Chapel St Community Schools Trust on a voluntary basis. During this period the trust continued to pay his expenses. Towards the end of the school year it became possible for the trust to recommence remuneration for this role, a decision that was more than justified given the significant work and impact of David’s leadership across our schools.”
The trust added:”Thanks to the support of the EFA and further investment into our infrastructure, the trust is now on a much stronger financial footing and looks forward to an exciting future serving children and families.”
Pressed on whether Mr Brown was actually a volunteer at the time of my original request for information last year, the trust said that he had been, as “for three months of the year, and at the time of your initial enquiry, David served in a voluntary capacity”.
The £77,952 translates to £8,661 for each of the remaining nine months of 2015-16 when Deran Consulting was paid. The trust said it was: “clearly commensurate with the rate of pay for a part time Chief Executive at a comparable Multi Academy Trust. In addition, engaging a part time Chief Executive in this way significantly reduces other costs, such as pension contributions, that the trust would be liable for in addition to salary and expenses.”
The academies structure allows trusts to pay chief executives whatever they think is appropriate, and CSCST clearly argue that Brown is doing a good job. But his position was not voluntary for much of the year. So it is important to set the record straight.