London

London school charged for governor's Menorca commute

Turnham Primary School
Image caption The head of children's services said it was 'highly unusual for a chair of governors to be living abroad'

The chair of governors of a school in south-east London claimed expenses for travel from his home in Menorca in Spain, the BBC has learnt.

In two months, £286 was claimed in air and rail fares for Cliff Pearce, chair of Turnham Primary School, to attend meetings.

Lewisham Council identified his "unusual expenses" and concerns over human resources at the school.

In a response to the BBC, Mr Pearce did not address his travel arrangements.

The council said it had offered "advice and support" to the school.

Not justifiable

Frankie Sulke, executive director for Children and Young People, said in a letter seen by BBC London that the Brockley foundation school's HR, financial management and governance practices were "likely to be seen as unusual by most onlookers".

She said concerns would "raise understandable questions about the use of public funds" and "risk bringing the school into disrepute".

The school's prospectus describes the governors of the school as "people drawn from the local community".

The letter - dated 20 May - highlighted that Mr Pearce lived in Menorca and travels back for meetings, which are supposed to take place at least once a term.

Ms Sulke wrote: "It is highly unusual for a chair of governors to be conducting the role while living abroad as you do, and even more so to expect public funds to be used to cover the costs to enable this to be done.

"I do not believe that the public would consider paying your, and certainly not a relative's, overseas travel expenses to be a reasonable and justifiable use of public funds designated for children."

The chair of governors, according to the letter, claimed travel expenses of £286 between November 2012 and January this year, "including an airfare for your wife/partner".

Responding to BBC London in a statement, Mr Pearce did not address his living arrangements:

He said: "The local authority has given the school a number of recommendations to improve procedures and practices.

"The governors and new head teacher are addressing these.

"I would like to reiterate no issues of fraud or corruption were raised."

Ms Sulke also raised concerns that the school hired a responsible officer from 1 April who has a long history with the school, when "the Academies Financial handbook guidance clearly states [the role] should be unpaid, advisory and independent".

The responsible officer - charged with overseeing school finances - was found by Ms Sulke to have submitted nearly £7,000 in expenses in 2012-13, including "significant alcohol spend".

Ms Sulke also said that in at least one case a relation of a governor of the school had been employed shortly after they took up the role of governor.

An investigation was carried out after attempts were made to suspend new head teacher, Louise Salewski, after only five days in the post, without due process being followed.

The local authority said the suspension was "aborted".

Good Ofsted

Mr Pearce was told he must provide the steps the governing body will take to resolve the concerns before the end of the summer term.

The local authority could choose to take away the school's control of its budget.

Asked how he felt about the chair of governors living in Spain, one parent, said: "It's a multicultural society we live in so basically I don't see it as a problem."

Another parent said: "I think it's disgusting. The money should be going into the school."

The most recent Ofsted report from March classed the leadership and management of the school as "good".

It said the head teacher and members of the governing body had developed a dedicated staff team highly committed to the aims of the school and that leaders had raised standards in reading, maths and attendance.

A Lewisham Council spokeswoman said: "If concerns are raised by a school at any point, then the local authority would always work with them and offer appropriate advice and support, as was the case with Turnham."

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