Government education chiefs have been accused by a Bradford MP of being “evasive and untruthful” over questions about how a flagship Bradford free school was allowed to operate for more than a year without a chairman of governors.
The Department for Education has been under intense scrutiny in recent months for its handling of Kings Science Academy which was formed in September 2011.
A report into the school released last year showed major failings in the school’s governance, including the mishandling of tens of thousands of pounds of funding.
Earlier this month the school’s principal, Sajid Raza, was arrested on suspicion of fraud as part of a police investigation into the school’s financial affairs. He remains on bail pending further inquiries.
And the DfE now faces more criticism after a timetable released by Education Secretary Michael Gove revealed the extent of problems at the school, including its lack of a chairman of governors between October 2011 and October 2012.
During that time, in April 2012, the school was visited by Prime Minister David Cameron, who described it as “innovative and inspiring”.
The school was one of the country’s first free schools – free from local authority control or regulation.
In September 2011, the school informed the DfE that Alan Lewis, a vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, was chairman of governors. But more than a year later it updated DfE officials to say this had been a mistake and the school did not have a chairman of governors in place. The school pays rent to one of Mr Lewis’s companies which owns the land it was built on in Northside Road, Lidget Green.
Bradford East MP David Ward has complained to a Parliamentary Committee that ministers are now using the fraud investigation to evade questions about the year gap.
He said: “The answers that education ministers keep giving to me and other MPs are completely unacceptable and in breach of Parliamentary protocol.
“They know the truth as well as I do so they are deliberately evading answering the hard questions and using the police investigation as a smokescreen. These questions need answering.”
Coun Ralph Berry, executive member for children’s services on Bradford Council, is also critical of the DfE.
He said: “I cannot understand how nobody knew who the chair of governors was, or that there wasn’t one for over a year.
“If the local authority didn’t know who the chair of governors of a school was, there would be hell to pay. People have a go at local authorities but the fact is when it comes to schools we do a good job of checks and balances.”
A DfE spokesman said: “As part of their funding agreement, all free schools must notify the department of any changes in governance.
“The Department was explicitly informed by e-mail from Kings Science Academy that Alan Lewis took over as chair from October 1, 2011. We learned in October 2012 that we had been misinformed.
“This was looked at by the Education Funding Agency as part of its wider investigation into financial management and governance at KSA in December 2012, which confirmed there had been no chair in place for the first year of the school’s operation.
“Following this investigation we required KSA to address its management failings urgently and we are confident it is doing so.
"As with all free schools, it continues to be held rigorously to account. Where there is failure we will not hesitate to intervene.”