Secret memos, backroom deals and private chats over new academy
Artist’s impression of how the new Camden academy could look
High Court review hears how education chiefs ‘froze out’ interested school sponsors after setting up partnership with world-famous university. Special report by Tom Foot
IN the hallowed chambers of the High Court, a trail of secrets behind Camden’s first academy school project have trickled out into the open.
The legal arguments may not be riveting spectator sport but in the to and fro across the benches in court number one, the clearest picture so far of how the Town Hall reached its decision to let University College London (UCL) run the new school has emerged.
It has effectively been a blow by blow account of the private negotiations which unfolded over the past three years, negotiations which it is alleged some interested parties unfairly had more access to than others.
For example, it wasn’t known publicly until David Wolfe, the barrister leading this potentially landmark legal challenge, took to his feet and began his opening arguments last Wednesday, that Lehman Brothers – the collapsed bank now in financial ruins – had at one time offered to bankroll the project.
But it is the so-called “backroom deal” which saw the council and UCL divvy up control of Camden’s first new school in a generation which is under most scrutiny, a case brought by one parent who complained that the way education chiefs chose the sponsor for the school was unfair.
Camden and UCL are together in the middle of selling their vision for the new school, planned for Adelaide Road in Swiss Cottage, as a barrier-busting institution where children will have geography lessons in Spanish and prepare for the business world by taking on languages like Mandarin and Arabic.
But there have been five days of evidence at the Royal Courts of Justice – and still the Town Hall doesn’t know whether the brakes are about to crunch down on the project.
The scheme is a key issue for the Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition running the Town Hall, knitted to pre-election promises.
The UCL Academy is scheduled to be open within three years, and the council has worked on the assumption that the legal challenge will be successfully hurdled.
UCL was named the preferred sponsor last July but the High Court has heard that as far back as 2005, UCL first courted education chiefs over an “academy possibility”.
The then Labour-run Town Hall had resisted academy proposals – the controversial use of independent sponsors to run schools – and was keen that UCL would instead “partner” all schools in Camden.
It was stressed by lawyers in the High Court that the initial meetings were “purely exploratory” and that no firm decisions were taken.
Almost a year passed with barely a whisper from either side, Mr Wolfe argued, until the coalition seized control of the Town Hall in the dramatic May 2006 council elections.
The High Court heard that talks with UCL suddenly “accelerated” and on June 6 2006, Camden officials met to discuss the idea that UCL and the Institute of Education could co-sponsor an academy, funded by the City investment banking giant Lehman Brothers.
It emerged during the hearing that the bank had written to the council showing its interest in providing a £2million donation and describing a new deal as “attractive”. But on June 26 2006, the bank – which collapsed last month in the economic crunch – pulled out, leaving the project in crisis.
Camden filled the void by proposing a partnership with UCL to run the academy, with a comprehensive-style admissions policy.
Mr Wolfe told the court last Wednesday: “The council was no doubt excited by the attractiveness of the proposal. There was a huge shift in tone in enthusiasm for developing an academy in Camden.”
In August 2006, the former schools minister Lord Adonis, and architect of the academy programme on a national level, met with new council leader Councillor Keith Moffitt to discuss the proposals. Camden has been handed around £200million from the government under the Building Schools for the Future policy, aimed at upgrading and building schools across the country.
Mr Wolfe told the court: “The discussions were taking place at the highest level. The council was made aware that the government expectation was that Camden should have an academy as part of Building Schools for Future.”
Money-wise, the John Lyons Charitable Trust, an education charity, said it would plug the funding gap left by the withdrawal of Lehmann Brothers and stump up a £2million donation.
Everything was in place and the deal looked set for approval until Camden’s legal team raised concerns that guidance in the Education Act 2006 could be interpreted as requiring the council to invite bids from other sponsors in a formal competitive process.
Camden, the High Court was told by Mr Wolfe, did not ultimately take this seriously, despite “huge interest” from other high profile sponsors desperate to run the school. It is the lack of competition which remains a central point of the legal challenge, drawn together by law firm Leigh Day & Co.
In October 2006, the Diocese of London approached Camden about the Church of England’s interest in running the academy and in November 2006, Cllr Moffitt and Councillor John Bryant met with the education charity Absolute Return for Kids (Ark), which is partly funded through high risk hedge-fund investment schemes.
Cllr Moffitt later wrote in a memo: “Cllr Bryant and I were concerned because it sounded as if an Ark school would form part of the Ark family, rather than the Camden School family.”
Two months later, Ark wrote again to Cllr Moffitt in a letter – later uncovered by the New Journal using Freedom of Information rules.
The letter made clear Ark’s “strong interest in working with Camden to establish an academy in the borough”, adding: “We would be ready to make a firm commitment very quickly.”
Mr Wolfe said: “This was Ark showing strong interest. But despite their keenness, any discussions with them were shut down from the outset, based on individual concerns from councillors Moffitt and Bryant. At the time, there had been extensive discussions with UCL.”
The offers of sponsorship rolled in. In January last year, the Diocese of London presented its formal registration of interest in the academy and weeks later the Diocese reiterated its strong interest.
By April last year, a petition of 1,900 signatures, organised by a Church-supporting parents group, had been delivered to the Town Hall calling for a Church of England secondary school to open in Camden.
Mr Wolfe said: “The Diocese was relaxed about what type of school it would be – an academy, trust or cluster. But they were distinctly frozen out of the process on the assumption that UCL was to be the preferred sponsor.
“A dichotomy was set up: it was either a UCL academy, or the competition route. And the council did not want the competition. The Church of England interest was seen as a risk – it was going to delay the scheme.”
The Diocese of London later claimed it had not even been sent the consultation document and said it was “puzzled” as to why its bid had been ignored.
The reason appeared to be explained on June 23 when Cllr Bryant in a private briefing to Lib Dem-supporting governors – later brought to public attention in a New Journal front page exclusive – revealed his personal feelings.
Cllr Bryant, who stepped down from his role as children’s services supremo last year blaming health problems and work opportunities, admitted in his note that he was against any faith school being created. He also revealed his belief that speeding up the opening of the UCL academy would benefit his political party in the 2010 council elections.
He said: “There are big risks in proceeding with a competition for our new school. We would delay the possibility of having evidence of any building taking place on Adelaide Road at the time of the next election.”
Just weeks after the memo was sent, UCL was named preferred sponsor at the council’s cabinet meeting.
It was a stormy night at the Town Hall with familiar calls for an open competition to decide who should run the school.
In the minds of those who oppose Camden’s academy project, there was still hope that the council might run the school itself, like the rest of the borough’s state secondaries. It could, after all, enter a competition itself and show that the Town Hall was best placed to control it.
Former Conservative councillor for Hampstead Town, Mike Greene, told the July meeting: “I am certainly not convinced that we have been playing on a level playing field. The discussions have been going on for some time with UCL. There can be the appearance of a back room deal.”
Nevertheless, the coalition persevered and approved UCL’s bid, handing over the keys to the academy. But as the council and UCL began to think about the first building blocks in Swiss Cottage, campaigners
were thinking otherwise and dug the foundations of this week’s judicial review.
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