Poor Prospects

Prospects Services, the education firm blocked from taking on more academy schools because of poor performance, managed to persuade a Tory education minister to overrule his civil servants and ignore the firm’s failures, papers obtained by Private Eye under Freedom of Information show.

The company which is based in Bromley and has a £76m turnover, derived almost entirely from government education and training contracts, became sponsor in 2010 of the Gloucester Academy, a 758-pupil secondary school, with the personal backing of the then Tory education minister Nick Gibb. By March 2012 however, Ofsted inspectors had found the new school was “inadequate”. In August that year, an angry Prospects’ managing director Vincent McDonnell then sent letters and emails to another education minister, Lord Hill, asking for an “urgent meeting” after officials from the Department for Education (DfE) told him: “Prospects are currently ‘paused’ with regard to further sponsored academy projects because of concerns over their performance in the open Gloucester Academy.”

McDonnell complained that this “unhelpful” attitude was “having a negative impact” on “the commercial operation of our company”. He claimed Prospects had “achieved a great deal” in Gloucester, and blamed the poor Ofsted report on “underachieving” pupils. He also said Prospects would be “better placed now” had it “not taken on the responsibility” for the Gloucester Academy.

Lord Hill met McDonnell and Prospects’ Leslie Stephens last October. The “feedback” note of that meeting says:  “Lord Hill wants to progress these deferred/on hold Prospects projects asap. Lord Hill’s view was that unless we have very strong reasons not to do so we should now approve these and start afresh with Prospects on a case by case basis.”

Though Lord Hill was swayed by the firm, his civil servants were clearly unhappy – especially as Prospects failed to mention a second, equally damning Ofsted inspection that had taken place just before the firm met the minister.

One official wrote: “What Vincent and Leslie failed to mention was that the Gloucester Academy was inspected last week” and “judged to have serious weaknesses and requires significant improvement”. The officials were unsure if “this will cause Lord Hill to think again”. McDonnell must have known of the second bad Ofsted inspection: he is a governor of the Gloucester Academy, as well as being Prospects’ MD. Another civil servant said of the new inspection: “I’m very surprised they [Prospects] didn’t mention it either in the meeting with Lord Hill or when I spoke to them afterwards.”

The government is desperate to promote “academy chains”  – organisations like Prospects which can run more than one academy school.

After Lord Hill’s intervention Prospects was given five more. In February, however, Ofsted found that one of these, Bexhill Academy, was also “inadequate” and put the large secondary into special measures. In June inspectors returned to the school and said Prospects’ improvement plan was not “fit for purpose”.

The DfE gave Private Eye a certificate from current education minister Liz Truss authorising it to withhold one document which might be “used to bring negative attention to Prospects or the department. Given the papers that were released, this paper must have made particularly ugly reading.

From Private Eye 1346 dated 9-22 August 2013

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