Finance rules broken at East London Science School, report finds

David Perks

East London Science School principal David Perks pictured in 2013. - Credit: David Mirzoeff

A trust has been told to take "urgent action" after a damning report found a free school broke finance rules by handing out undocumented staff pay rises.

A government investigation found appointments were made at East London Science School (ELSS) where the successful candidates knew the principal and conflicts of interest were "not managed".

Questions were also raised about purchases, including a £1,630 drone used to take marketing photos of the school.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) probe found "inadequate" evidence to support performance management and pay increases for senior staff totalling at least £31,135.

It noted a lack of oversight and challenge by the school's board of trustees over the level of control exercised by the principal, David Perks, who is also accounting officer, a member and a trustee.

Mr Perks, in a statement, said: "I fully accept the findings of the ESFA report and I acknowledge that mistakes have been made."

Adam Atashzai MBE, a former special adviser to David Cameron, is chair of governors at the school in Three Mill Lane. Rishi Sunak was a director from 2013-15, Companies House records show.

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The ESFA found Mr Perks and a vice-principal appointed a careers lead in 2016 on a salary of £27,810 even though their form showed no work experience in computer science or careers advice.

Mr Perks was found to have altered a document linked to the appointment which was submitted as part of the probe.

The trust was also found to have advertised for an A-level chemistry specialist in April, 2018 with a job description noting that a first class degree was "essential".

However, the person appointed, who was a former trustee and known to the principal, only had a 2:2 degree and did not have recent teaching experience.

While the post was for a science teacher the appointee was listed as being head of science, curriculum lead in the subject and on the leadership pay scale with a £64,112 salary.

The probe found there was no documented "reasoning, approval or explanation" for the change in role and uplift in grade and pay.

The principal confirmed he previously knew the appointee, who no longer works at the school.

The probe also found a former school business manager saw his salary go from £55,000 in 2013 to £69,162 in 2016, a 26 per cent increase.

Another friend of Mr Perks was employed at the school in 2019 but there was no personnel file or records of his employment except payroll entries showing he received £4,800.

The report notes Mr Perks authorised payment of £500 to a vice principal for the purchase of his digital camera even though the school already owned 11.

The principal also signed off on a £600 payment to a vice-principal's partner to proof read the school handbook in 2018.

Investigators also found Mr Perks keeps the school debit card on him, including when off site and at home. 

The investigation report notes this represents a breach of trustees' responsibility to ensure the highest standards of governance and the personal responsibility of the accounting officer to ensure high standards of probity.

Further questions were raised over payment of an invoice totalling £14,400 from the Academy of Ideas - the team of which includes Baroness Fox of Buckley - in relation to Battle of Ideas, a charity the trust has "a number of connections with", the report states.

"There was no evidence to show how the connections, and potential conflict, were managed", the report notes.

Mr Perks's statement says: “My sole priority as founder and principal of ELSS has always been to deliver the best possible education for pupils.

"Everything I do, with my team, is with that single focus in mind.

"I am working closely with the governing body and our wider team to work through our action plan and address in full the findings of the report.”

Investigators visited the school after a whistleblower alleged financial mismanagement in October, 2019.

The free school, single academy trust has a capacity of 1,000 students, but it currently has 568 on roll.

The ESFA urged the trust to take urgent action and give more consideration to the "robustness" of financial management and governance arrangements.

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