'Vulnerable' children left at risk by SchoolsCompany Trust

Teacher writing on white board
Image caption An academy chain that ran "inadequate" special needs centres is being investigated by Kent police

An academy chain that ran "chaotic" special needs schools is having its finances investigated by police and facing claims it put children at risk.

SchoolsCompany Trust was in charge of three Pupil Referral Units (PRU) in Devon and a mainstream school in Kent.

Parents were told one of the sites was found to have exposed vulnerable pupils to mouse poison and untested electrical equipment, the BBC has learned.

Devon County Council said the chain was vetted by the Department for Education.

Image caption SchoolsCompany was in charge of three Pupil Referral Units (PRU) in Devon

It said it handed the North, Central and South and West Devon Academies - which taught children who had been excluded from mainstream education, or had learning difficulties or medical issues - to SchoolsCompany in 2015. All schools have now come under new management.

A BBC Inside Out investigation found evidence pupils lacked resources, despite the council giving the trust up to £58,000 per school place for some of the pupils.

In July 2017 the Education Skills and Funding Agency said SchoolsCompany should take urgent action over its failure to ensure good financial management.

In the same year, the trust's accounts showed chief executive Elias Achilleos's pay package had been increased to at least £120,000 a year. Four other trustees had pay rises.

The expenses claimed by seven of the trustees also rose - to an annual total of £58,000 in 2017 from just £14,000 a year earlier.

Image caption Elias Achilleos' pay package was worth up to £120,000 a year

Ofsted inspections of the PRUs in 2017 and 2018 found them "inadequate" in all categories.

Early in 2018 Angela Barry was appointed as the new interim chief executive. She found bills were not being paid, some exam results had been double counted and the whereabouts of children were not always known to teachers.

Trust board minutes said the Dartington site was getting funding for between 40 and 50 pupils but at one point only nine children were actually at the school.

The rest were being taught at smaller sites across Devon, some of which board papers said were unsuitable.

One site was "potentially illegal", the minutes said, with rent arrears, no insurance, gas or electrical safety tests.

Parents were told one site - in Bideford - was being closed down immediately because of "acute health and safety" failings, including broken water pipes, smashed windows and mouse poison in reach of the children.

Image caption Trust board minutes say the Dartington site was getting funding for between 40 and 50 pupils but at one point only nine children were actually at the school.

'No security'

Image caption Liza Vockins said there was "no security" at the facilities her daughter was sent to

Liza Vockins's daughter had special needs and went to two SchoolsCompany sites, at Barnstaple and Bideford.

Describing how there was "no security" in place, she told the BBC: "They're vulnerable children. I know you wouldn't let a vulnerable adult walk out of a care home because of the safety - there should have been safeguarding in place, there was nothing."

The Bideford site was immediately closed on safety grounds when the new management came in.

The BBC has contacted all the former paid trustees at SchoolsCompany for comment.

Devon County Council said it had flagged concerns about SchoolsCompany with the regional schools commissioner in 2017.

It apologised for the chain's failure to match the high standards its records promised.

SchoolsCompany Trust said the way the trust had been previously run was unacceptable.

It said a new leadership had stabilised the four academies but they were still transferred to new chains.

The Department for Education said it had taken robust action on SchoolsCompany, appointing a new leadership team and transferring the academies to different trusts.

The DfE said the new trusts were already improving standards at the schools.

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