Colleges defend subcontracting agreements with ‘cult’ school chain

Two FE colleges have defended their dealings with a religious school chain denounced as a “cult” by former members and under investigation by the Department for Education (DfE).

City College Coventry and Barnet and Southgate College both held contracting agreements, as leads, with Focus Learning Trust, an independent school chain run by the Exclusive Brethren (also known as the Plymouth Brethren), until last year.

Focus Learning Trust’s subcontracting arrangements are being “looked at” by the DfE  and concerns were reported in The Times last month over the trust’s teaching practices, which allegedly included banning certain books and refusing to teach about evolution, sex or homosexuality.

The Brethren, a Christian sect which believes members should live separately from the rest of the world to avoid being corrupted by non-believers, has been condemned as “a cult” by former members over its practice of exiling defectors and preventing them from seeing their families.

However, City College Coventry principal Steve Logan defended the college’s relationship with a group, which held an £80,000 a-year contract to deliver A-level provision for around 20 students at the trust’s Coventry school and briefly at its Gloucester school.

Mr Logan told FE Week: “I am only able to comment on our experience of the extremely good provision delivered at the Copsewood School in Coventry. On that basis, I must question the validity and accuracy of the comments made in the press.”

The arrangement had been in place for 10 years, added Mr Logan, but concluded in 2014.

The trust also had a £475k agreement in 2013/14 with Barnet and Southgate College, where a spokesperson said the arrangement was “subjected to the full and usual contracting due diligence”.

“Where necessary, this included seeking specific assurances on eligibility from relevant agencies. In accordance with funding rules the contract was covered by in-year quality control processes,” she said.

“The sub-contracting arrangements were concluded in July 2014, reflecting the changes to college funding allocations and revised strategic objectives.

“The college has, therefore, no relationship with Focus Learning Trust in 2014/15. The college has been in contact with the EFA and has received assurances about its historical position and Focus.”

A spokesperson for the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, which runs Focus Learning Trust, said the arrangement with Barnet and Southgate College had been “legitimate and approved”.

She added: “Some Focus Learning Trust schools have in the past entered into approved sub-contract arrangements with City College Coventry and Barnet and Southgate College.

“Our own in-house FE provision is evolving and improving and there are currently no sub-contract arrangements in place.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “We are looking into the arrangements between Focus Learning Trust and other institutions to ensure they meet our strict subcontracting standards.

“These partnerships can be used to give students access to facilities they may not otherwise have.

“Our guidance is clear that if subcontracting arrangements are not meeting these standards then they will be investigated. In extreme circumstances, we will not hesitate to terminate a funding agreement.”

The Exclusive Brethren is already facing investigation by HMRC over multimillion pound gift aid claims to fund its schools and is being questioned over whether it should count as a charity and so can be eligible for tax breaks.

A Brethren spokesperson said the issues HMRC was looking into “derive from uncertainty about the correct application of the rules” and said other faith schools were also being investigated, although HMRC declined to confirm this.

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