The hot topic in Congleton this week was the fact that Congleton High School — or at least Congleton Multi Academy Trust (Cmat), which is led by the high school — had sacked the governors at Black Firs Primary School after a barney. They don’t put it like that, but that’s basically it.
We don’t know the rights and wrongs for sure — more of that shortly — but on a prime facie examination it seems wrong, even on a basic level of fairness.
As respected former councillor and ex-mayor Roland Domleo said: “If the staff want to leave the trust, parents want to leave the trust and governors want to leave the trust, how in a democratic society can they stop it from happening?”
We don’t know all the rights and wrongs because over the last couple of decades what were council services, discussed in public in front of the Press, have been moved behind closed doors.
Back in the olden days, local authorities ran schools (and before that, the electric and gas works), and scholastic items were discussed in public at an education committee. Today’s situation is the result of a decades-long move to remove most of our public functions from public scrutiny, the apotheosis of which is Cheshire East Council and its standalone companies, all now private boards.
Leisure centres, refuse collection, crematoria and cemeteries — you name it, it’s now discussed behind closed doors because it’s no longer part of the council. The public is only given information via Press releases (though to be fair, companies such as Ansa, which delivers waste and recycling services, do have to report back to the council).
Council houses are the same — the old housing committee was replaced by Plus Dane and its ilk, to which the Press has no access. Is it true that Plus Dane is, as popular gossip has it, moving people out of Liverpool and into Congleton? We don’t know. It doesn’t have to tell us.
So, Congleton Multi Academy Trust operates in privacy; what has gone wrong, we can only guess.
But while Cmat may hold meetings in private, it is a limited company. Its annual report for 2016 is available and it gives us something of a view behind the scenes, which can be used to compare the claims against the fact.
The former chairman of governors at Black Firs, Dave Whitewright, has questioned the financial management of Cmat, which apparently did not have its own bank account between June 2014 and September 2016.
It’s true: while we can’t know about the bank account, the annual report reveals that Cmat suffered “an internal breach of financial authority levels”. What does that mean? The annual report does not say but it does say the matter was dealt with “swiftly and robustly”. A sacking or someone merely told where the limits of their responsibilty end? We do not know.
Elsewhere in the report, it says actions have been taken to address weaknesses, but again we do not know what.
Still, Mr Whitewright would seem to have a point.
He also said that Black Firs governors did not receive accurate accounts for over 12 months, so were unable to track school finances accurately. He claimed that in August, Congleton High owed £159,000 to Black Firs. This was paid back in October after the end of the financial year, when the directors were informed the high school had a £120,000 surplus.
Again, the ins and outs are not in the public domain but the 2016 annual reports show that the high school had a net deficit of £422,000, because student numbers had increased but Government funding lagged behind. This would be cleared when the money came through, says the report.
Perhaps Mr Whitewright again has a point; a simple conclusion might be that the high school sat on the Black Firs money until its Government cash came through to see it through its temporary cashflow problem.
If that is true — a deficit at Congleton High was partially covered by money belonging to Black Firs — Mr Whitewright might well be correct to say that “there is a serious conflict of interest” between the Cmat CEO and chairman because of “their inability to separate the interests of Cmat and Congleton High and treat each of the academies equitably”.
Again, a simple conclusion from the claims and the evidence might be that Cmat used its money to cover the high school deficit — fair enough if all was above board, but Mr Whitewright says Black Firs was unable to track its school finances. If Cmat is depriving one member of information to help another member, that is wrong.
Overall, a reasonable person might conclude that Black Firs has a right to be aggrieved and, coupled with Mr Domleo’s comments, would suggest to that it is unfair of Cmat to treat Black Firs in this way.
Clearly, something has gone wrong.
A reasonable guess might be that, in the interests of education, the vision of Cmat would be to have all its feeder schools as members; it makes sense.
But human nature is such that along the way that mission would get to be bigger for its own sake. Empire-building is too maligned a term to use but in general, people with a vision tend to want everyone to go along with them.
Now Black Firs wants to leave Cmat but that body’s forward movement is dependent on all its members staying put, and from that point of view Black Firs cannot be allowed to leave. Is this the case? It does not seem unreasonable to assume that.
When the banking crisis hit, the phrase “too big to fail” became popular.
Perhaps Cmat — and other similar educational bodies — are too big to work.