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Thursday, 22 July 2021 06:43

The Coninued Story of Castle Trust, which brought Delce Academy to its knees

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Although this is no longer a Medway story, those connected with Delce Academy almost destroyed by Castle Trust, led by its CEO and headteacher Karen White, will be interested in the trust’s demise as it faces a DfE Financial Notice to Improve (FNTI) issued in May. This is in consequence of this single small school Trust having ‘made decisions which carry significant financial risk and have failed to demonstrate value for money. Additionally, following a significant change which impacted its income, the trust failed to act quickly enough to make the necessary plans and implement sufficient changes to achieve a balanced budget to ensure it remained a going concern and financially sustainable.

The Trust is now being wound up, but there is no need to worry too much about Ms White. She is retiring at the end of the next school year, during which she will engage in light duties, having been remunerated in the financial year 2019-20 by £265,000 (including restructuring costs), a second Trust employee receiving an astonishing £200,000. Although Delce Academy is now in good hands, it is still struggling because of Ms White's legacy, which has left this once-successful Junior School with an Infant Section that is withering away and a junior section that still needs to improve its reputation.  

Parental Comment: Greenway is a well-regarded local school with supportive parents, well-behaved, enthusiastic children, and very good, well-respected teachers. They don’t deserve to be at the receiving end of financial mismanagement.

It is unfortunate that the Trust website makes a series of fantasy claims, continuing the practice of Delce Academy, quoted in previous articles when that was initially the lead school. This approach even pervades the legally required trust accounts for 2019-20, approved last week, at the last minute according to the rules and too late to be picked up by Schoolsweek in its own story of 10th July.

My previous article, last month, brought the story up to date at that point, with Castle Trust being left with just the one junior school, Greenway Academy in West Sussex after Delce was removed from it by the Regional Schools Commissioner, presumably the significant change of my opening paragraph. Karen White, CEO and headteacher of Greenway, has now sent a letter to parents making more ridiculous claims.

The letter opens: Dear Parents/Carers, we are writing to you today to let you know that Greenway is taking positive next steps in its ongoing journey of school improvement (Translation: The Trust is being forced by the Regional Schools Commissioner, to be wound up because of its failings).

Later on, ‘As part of the lengthy process of transferring Greenway Academy to GLF Schools and closing Castle Trust, a Financial Notice to Improve (FNTI) has been issued to Castle Trust by the Education, Skills and Funding Agency (ESFA)’. Poppycock. The real reason the FNTI was issued was that the Trust was bailed out with 'urgent nonrecoverable funding in January 2021 and in May 2021, to enable the trust to meet its financial commitments'. It continues: ‘Through the ESFA’s ongoing engagement with the trust, a series of weaknesses have been identified, each of which constitutes a breach of requirements of the trust’s Funding Agreement’.

The letter also contains a summary of Ms White’s responsibilities next year. ‘In her final year of education, our current Executive Headteacher, Ms Karen White, will be focusing solely on her role as the CEO of Castle Trust from 1st September. She will be working to secure the transfer of Greenway Academy to its chosen Trust, GLF Schools, and continuing to drive forward the new school build that was announced earlier this year’. I find it difficult to believe that, with her record, GLF Schools will let her near the transfer. So one can only speculate how she will earn her salary through 2021-22. In February the government announced the first fifty schools in a national rebuilding scheme for those in the worst condition including Greenway. Experience of such schemes in Kent shows that it takes considerable time for these to develop momentum, and the school has made little reference to it until now so it may be premature to allocate such a high proportion of Ms White's time for this purpose. GLF Schools will in any case probably want to do the driving forward, so it is difficult to see where she will fit in.   

Ms White’s excessive income of £265,000 in 2019-20 places her in the highest-paid rank of Trust leaders in the country, according to Schools Week. If her remuneration had been available at the time of publication of the article, she would have been in fifth place nationally, and the only one of the top 20 leaders responsible for fewer than a thousand pupils (351 at last count). This sum includes £150,000 in restructuring costs, presumably something to do with the removal of Delce Academy from the trust, although I can't see it myself. Further, the accounts show that total restructuring costs for the trust are £314,000, including £92,000 for redundancy payments and £216,000 for payment in lieu of notice, so the question arises as to which of these categories applies in this case? 

 As the Board of Directors of the Trust delegated day-to-day responsibility to Ms White as accounting officer in the Report, ‘she has full responsibility for the propriety and financial management of the Trust’, failure in these areas being what brought about the FNTI! According to the fantasy report, she actually delivered improved value for money by a variety of strategies across the schools (?) of the Trust. She also signs a personal declaration that 'No instances of material irregularity, impropriety or funding non-compliance have been discovered', although if that is the case one can only speculate on what basis the FNTI was issued. There is a second unidentified officer of the Trust listed in the Annual Report on a mind-blowing salary of £200,000, who is likely to be Mrs Knight, the Chief Finance Officer (so what was she doing whilst the financial position was in freefall?). Between them, the two took home over a fifth of all staff salaries. 

In any case, the accounts are extremely obscure, hiding under the excuse that there is no need for the Trust to show it is a going concern, as it will hand over the Trust to GLF on 1st January 2021, which of course never happened. I suspect this is because GLF has found the Trust such a rotten case that it is behaving with extreme caution. What we do know from the government’s Schools Financial Benchmarking website is that for 2019-20, Castle’s expenditure was £3.88 million whilst its income was only £1.74 million, a loss of over two million through the year. Where did it all go? We do know from the accounts that one or more unidentified members of staff received £206,572 in total for payment in lieu of notice, which sounds extravagant. The Independent Auditor is Keston Reeves of Chatham. To my unqualified mind, and oddly, Kreston Reeves is also the independent reporting accountant who gave an assurance report on the regularity of the accounts to the Education and Skills Funding Agency.  Their contracts have come to an end this year, with the whole operation of Castle Trust shifting from Rochester to Newcastle, for some reason.

This case doesn’t quite fall into the league of the Lilac Sky and SchoolsCompany Trusts (both with FNTIs) which also operated in Kent and whose decline and fall I have also charted. Their leaders walked away with even larger sums of money, having driven their organisations into the ground. The case against Lilac Sky appears to have been quietly closed. SchoolsCompany is still ‘under investigation’ by the Department for Education for financial irregularities three years later, presumably with the hope it and the embarrassment will all be forgotten. Also on a larger scale is the Griffin Trust, still with its two Medway Primary Schools. But it does put several other cases of high salary for minimal effort that I have exposed, into the shade. You will find my latest survey of high salaries in Kent schools here



Last modified on Wednesday, 28 July 2021 02:17

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