Governors of Prendergast school – the Leathersellers’ Federation of Schools – have refused to provide details under the Freedom of Information Act about their decision to apply for academy status.
Yet they deny secrecy, claiming to have been open and transparent.
The answers they have provided, along with published minutes and replies to emails over the past five months or so, suggest that the timetable of events was as follows:
- Unknown date – Leathersellers’ Education Committee and the Court discuss a new structure for the Prendergast schools (source: Minutes 06 November 2014, 1.5)
- 16 June 2014 – Chair of governors, Christopher Barrow (CB) and executive head David Sheppard (DH) met the Commissioner of Schools to discuss academy status (source: Letter sent 27 April 2015 [incorrectly dated 2014])
- 14 October 2014 – Meeting called for 6 November 2014 “to consider the conversion of the Leathersellers’ Federation of Schools to a Multi-Academy Trust.” (Email released under Freedom of Information Request). There was a draft report attached to this email but there was also information from lawyers Stone King that the school has refused to release under FoI.
- 14 October 2014 – Meeting with Lewisham council’s education boss Frankie Sulkie. Attendees included Sue Tipler, the Leathersellers’ Master, the Leathersellers’ Clerk, CB, DS, Ian Russell – Chair of Governors, Colfe’s School and governor at the federation (IR) and Richard Russell – Headmaster, Colfe’s School and governor at the federation (RR) (source: Minutes 06 November 2014, 1.5)
- Unknown date – legal advice sought from Stone King (the request was never put in writing and therefore not covered by FoI)
- 04 November 2014 – Meeting with Stone King to receive legal advice (source: Minutes 06 November 2014, 3.3). The school has refused to divulge that legal advice.
- 06 November 2014 – Governors’ meeting that established a working party to look into becoming an academy (source: Minutes 06 November 2014)
- 13 November 2014 – East London Lines reports Prendergast to become an academy – the first parents and pupils have heard of it.
What was in the legal advice?
Parents are still not being told what was said in the legal advice – specifically whether it covered a range of options or only looked at academy status. The school has refused to issue this, even under Freedom of Information (FoI). It has even refused to say who requested the legal advice.
We do know that the working party did not seek any legal advice of its own. All the legal advice had, conveniently, been received prior to the setting up of the working party. We have to assume it was either the executive head, David Sheppard, or the chair of governors, Christopher Barrow.
We do know that the academy status had been on the cards since at least June 2014 and not a word was been mentioned to FOPSA, parents or pupils until the information leaked.
Delay and obfuscation
The school failed to answer my questions for a long time. The governors called a series of meetings with parents at the different schools but failed to put these meetings on their website and the school failed to send any notification of the Prendergast Hilly Fields meeting to parents, by letter, email or text.
Chair of governors, Christopher Barrow, has said the following to me:
“Governors have at no point attempted to keep their work a secret.” Email 22 March 2015.
“We shall continue to engage openly and constructively with all stakeholders”. Email 22 March 2015.
“Despite all the honest and transparent information we have placed in the public domain, your view has not appeared to change”. Email 23 March 2015.
Executive head, David Sheppard, has said to me:
“The Governors do not accept the suggestion that the school or Governing Board has been secretive.” Email 20 November 2014.
It is my genuinely held view that the governors have been secretive and continue, even now, to refuse to reveal crucial information about the process and procedures they followed and the order of events.
Who’s Surey now?
Clerk to the governors, Keith Surey, has said the following:
“They have set up a Working Party to examine all options for the status and governance of the Federation’s schools.” Email 19 November 2014.
“The Federation met formally with the Local Authority and received their full support for the Governors’ intention to establish a working party to consider the future governance of the Federation. As detailed in the announcement posted on the Federation’s website and each of the school’s websites, to date the only decision that has been made is to establish a working party.” Email 20 November 2014.
“It is transparent in the minutes that there were exploratory discussions with the Local Authority which led to a proposal to set up a working party to examine governance structures including conversion to a multi academy trust (MAT). It also records discussion with the Department for Education so that any investigation into this matter was properly established. It was clearly set out in the minutes that there had been no decision to establish a multi academy trust.” Letter 1 April 2015.
It is my genuinely held view the working party was not established to review governance structures, as claimed, but to convert to academy status. The 14 October 2014 email calling the special governors’ meeting for 6 November did not discuss possible governance structures but was “to consider conversion of The Leathersellers’ Federation of Schools to a Multi-Academy Trust.”
Despite repeated request, including by FoI, I do not have definitive answers about the legal advice but I suspect that the legal advice was not on the wider issue of possible legal and governance structures but only about academy status.
The working party did not look at all the options and independently recommend academy status – it was established to look only at academy status, with legal advice only on that specific option.
In addition, Keith Surey said:
“I have passed your details on to Sandra Issac PA to the Executive Head who will contact you”. 19 November 2014.
And David Sheppard said:
“I understand from the Clerk to the Governors you have requested to meet me. I am happy to meet you and my PA will be in contact to discuss any concerns you may have.” Email 20 November 2014.
No such contact was ever made. No meeting was ever offered.
The documents are attached at the end, but here is some extracted evidence:
Email to governors, 14 October 2014:
I wish to call an additional Governing Board Meeting at 3.45pm on Thursday 6th November in the Executive Head’s office at Prendergast school (upper site). The purpose of the meeting is consider conversion of The Leathersellers’ Federation of Schools into a Multi-Academy Trust. Given that the Governors must consider all the implications of becoming an academy, we shall ask you (on 6th November) for your approval to establish a working group. That working group would gather the information, evaluate the options (in terms of governance structure and other matters) and prepare the case before proceeding to the Governing Board, at a later date, for a decision on whether to progress with an application. If the decision is positive, then we would appoint a project team (with a leader) to progress matters (including the formal appointment of a lawyer) to application submission to the DfE. At an early stage of the process, we would arrange to consult with key stakeholders (e.g. staff, parents, pupils and the LEA).
Draft proposals for Governance Structure (dated 6th November 2015 but sent with the notice calling the meeting for that date:
The Board of Governors (the Board) of The Leathersellers’ Federation of School (the Federation) has resolved to apply to the Secretary of State for conversion of the Federation to academy status.
From Governors Minutes 06 November 2014, section 1.5:
CB set out the background. The Leathersellers’ Company has been reviewing the strategic direction of the Federation and Colfe’s, leading to closer co-operation between the two. This has, in turn, led to a closer look at the Leathersellers’ role and the Federation’s governance structure. Detailed discussions at recent meetings of the Leathersellers’ Education Committee and the Court have raised questions regarding a more suitable future structure to match the increasing involvement and commitment of the Leathersellers to education in Lewisham. Exploratory discussions have been held this year with the DfE to get a better feel for the implications of Academy conversion. On the same day that CB called for this Additional Governing Board meeting, another meeting had been arranged inviting Frankie Sulke (FS) to the Leathersellers’ City offices to inform the LA of the Federation’s intention to convene a Governing Board meeting to explore the setting up of a working party to examine governance structures including conversion to a multi academy trust (MAT).
Section 1.6 lists the attendees as: Frankie Sulke, Sue Tipler, the Leathersellers’ Master, the Leathersellers’ Clerk, CB, DS, IR and RR
Section 3.3 states: CB advised that a meeting had been held with Stone King on Tuesday 4 November and this is a draft structure based on the discussion at that meeting. Trust
From Letter 27 April 2015:
Mr Sheppard and Mr Barrow met with the Commissioner for Schools on 16 June 2014 and discussed a range of issues regarding school improvement and Ofsted. There are no minutes of this meeting. Mr Sheppard, Mr Barrow, Ms Roberts, Mr O’Neil and Mr Hand meet with Her Majesty’s inspectors and officials from the DfE, from Ofsted and from the Local Authority as well as other Headteachers and service providers routinely as part of their leadership of schools within the federation. These meetings generally are not minuted as they are part of day to day business. This is common practice for Chairs of Governors and Headteachers within Lewisham and elsewhere.
The letters, emails and minutes are published here: