Probe into Sawtry Community College reveals irregular spending of more than £39,000 by former principal

Exterior of Sawtry Community College EMN-141126-130056009

Exterior of Sawtry Community College EMN-141126-130056009

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An inquiry into claims of irregular spending at Sawtry Community College has described how the former principal awarded himself unjustifed salary increases and put hotel bar bills and family accommodation on expenses.

Ex-principal James Stewart is alleged by the Education Funding Agency to have incurred irregular expenditure totalling £39,026 since the college converted to academy status in August 2011.

The report reveals that Mr Stewart was claiming a salary equivalent to that of a London borough with an allowance usually only given to reward head teachers in challenging deprived areas.

In addition, the report states that Mr Stewart even paid for membership of a wine club through academy funds.

But all the time, the academy, rated as needing improvement by Ofsted was failing to raise its standards and was rated as inadequate by June 2014.

The details are contained in a 23-page report by the agency which has just completed an indepth probe into the college’s finances.

It was sparked after the agency says it was alerted to alleged spending irregularities by a whistle-blower in June last year.

The findings of the officials have now been passed to police.

The report details six allegations surrounding the irregular expenditure of £39,026. It says that of this sum, £14,482 was spent directly from academy funds with the remainder through the private school fund.

The amounts are made up of £562.27 for an Ofsted conference for which there were no receipts.

Claims for £2,934.84 for a year’s direct debits on mobile phone and media items for costs incurred by the principal.

Some £4,615.01 was incurred on charge cards for meals, food and mobiles between August 2012 and May 2014.

In addition, the report states there were mileage claims totalling £6,370 but there was no documentary evidence to suggest how the claims had been incurred.

The report also examined spending from the private school funds totalling £24,544.

This, it states, included expenditure on alcohol, hospitality, shopping gift cards, home appliances and furnishings and, the report says, “items of a nature which did not obviously appear directly relate to the running of an academy”.

It found that regular purchases were made at weekends, most items did not have receipts attached, the expenditure was on 14 separate credit cards held by the principal and the majority of purchases seemed to have been made from supermarkets and shops local to the principal’s home rather than the academy.

Specific examples of expenditure include:

There was £3,593.62 directly attributable on alcohol and £4,946.55 on hospitality/entertaining,

A year’s car insurance and repairs to vehicles other than the one driven by the principal,

Monthly subscriptions to a wine club,

Fuel, where mileage expenses may have already been claimed,

Carpets, mats and items of furniture also delivered to the principal’s home address.

Agency officials also examined the principal’s annual salary statement and noted that in 2010 it jumped from £109,658 to £112,181 and then in 2012 went up to £113,303.

The report states the salary was inappropriate given the school’s poor performance. The academy was rated as inadequate in June 2014 by Ofsted having previously been rated as “requires improvement”.

In addition, the report notes the salary was on a scale equivalent to an inner London borough.

It also noted that the principal was paid an annual community allowance of £7,000, which it says is applicable in areas of deprivation and where extra activities are added to the school day to keep students engaged.

The report states that officials could not find documents relating to his salary increases, or a calendar showing when he was on leave or working in or out of the office.

It adds: “Discussions with academy staff highlighted that the principal would take leave in February every year, outside of the half-term holiday. However, this leave was not recorded.

Bonus payments of £250 were made for some staff but officials could not find documentation to justify the awards.

There was also an annual honorarium payment of £500 in the financial year 2011/12 and one for £600 the following year for the chair of governors but, the report says, there was no documentation to confirm the reason and the matter was not discussed by the governing body.

The report also states: “A laptop computer and some minor assets were missing from the principals office upon his resignation.

“In addition the academy noted the principal removing alcoholic stock, with a value of £747, from storage, over a period of two years. It is unknown where this stock was removed to and whether it left academy premises.

“None of this stock was found in the principal’s office, upon his departure.

It adds: “Since the EFA visit in July 2014, the academy wrote to the principal requesting return of all assets and reimbursement for the alcoholic stock. On September 3, 2014, the academy confirmed all assets had been returned and a cheque received for full reimbursement of the alcoholic stock.

Mr Stewart resigned on June 30 this year - three days after being confronted about the spending irregularities by officials of the Department for Education.

And then on July 9, acting on new allegations by the whistle blower, officials spoke to the college’s chair of governors who also resigned.

The college is now being run by a new acting principal acting principal, Sarah Wilson, and a new chair of governors.

Ms Wilson said: “Concerns about the financial management of the college under the former principal were raised by the college leadership team in July this year.

“We have co-operated fully with the agency throughout its work.

“The review makes very clear the mistakes of the past and the need for change at the college.

“We have put in place a new leadership team that is determined to rectify those mistakes and deliver on our seven point improvement plan.”

She added: “We have a clear view of the college’s future.

“We know that there have been major mistakes in the past, but we are confident that we are addressing these and have the right team and the right policies in place.”

A spokesman for Cambridgeshire County Council said: “We are aware of the issues but were the responsibility of the academy and its governors.”