'Dramatic transformation' was needed at Sawtry school after headteacher used funds to build ‘sex dungeon’ damaging the education of a community for many years

Ex headteacher James Stewart arriving at court previously
Ex headteacher James Stewart arriving at court previously
Have your say

A disgraced headteacher who used funds to build a “sex dungeon” alongside his office could have been caught sooner, a report has suggested.

James Stewart was executive principal at Sawtry Village Academy until 2014 when the Department for Education launched an investigation into his running of the school.

He was convicted of fraud and misconduct in public office for offences between 2011 and 2014, and was jailed for four years in October 2017.

A report about the case titled Lessons Learned - Sawtry Village Academy, which was prepared in response to issues raised in the criminal case, will go before a meeting of Cambridgeshire County Council’s Children and Young People’s Committee on Tuesday.

It said a whistleblower tried to report concerns in 2011, but the attempt was unsuccessful. “Staff state that an attempt was made by a former colleague to blow the whistle to the local authority in 2011,” the report said.

“This attempt was unsuccessful and allegedly the whistleblower was told it was not possible to take the concerns further without the support of the entire leadership team or the chair of governors; this was felt to be impossible due to concerns about collusion.”

The report said this advice “was not in line with local whistleblowing processes at the time”, and it was “not clear why such advice would have been given”.

It noted that fraud and misconduct at the school took place “over a significant period of time”, but that, since joining the Cambridge Meridian Academies Trust in 2015, “significant action” has been taken “to ensure this issue does not occur again”.

This included making staff aware of the whistleblowing policy, and displaying posters with details of people to contact.

“Staff commented that they would now feel significantly more confident in blowing the whistle,” the report said.

North West Cambridgeshire MP Shailesh Vara raised the case during Education questions in the House of Commons last year. He said the school had been left in “serious financial difficulty”, and that this was “not least because of the activities of its former head which included building a sex dungeon alongside his office for his private use”.

Mark Woods, Chief Executive of Cambridge Meridian Academies Trust, which now runs the school, said: “We are pleased the opportunity to fully investigate and learn the lessons of the past has been taken by the local authority. It is clear that this culture of leadership persisted unchecked for a number of years, long before the school became an academy.

“The new Principal, Sarah Wilson, worked closely with the Education Funding Agency and Cambridgeshire Police to forensically investigate the wrongdoing of Mr Stewart. However, this only focused on a brief period since the school became an academy in 2011 and evidence was clearly documented. We are pleased that the council agrees that there is evidence to suggest that this wrongdoing had been taking place over many years before this.

“While this wrongdoing and culture of leadership has undoubtedly damaged the education of a community for many years, it is pleasing to see the academy complete a dramatic transformation since his resignation.

"The school is now considered to be ‘Good’ with an ‘Outstanding’ sixth form and consistently achieves some of the highest academic results in the county, including being ranked in the top 10 schools for the academy’s progress last summer.

"We are very positive about the future of the academy and the community and look forward to working closely with the local authority to start work on our new building this summer.”