Manchester Creative Studio to close amid exam malpractice furore

Accusations of exam malpractice helped sealed the fate of a doomed studio school, according to “shocking” new board minutes.

Documents from the Manchester Creative Studio, shown to FE Week, also reveal that former trustees retained access to the school’s bank account months after they left, and that staff were not given contracts until this academic year.

It was announced in January that MCS would shut at the end of this academic year.

It will become the 18th studio school to close since the start of the scheme, which is designed as an alternative to mainstream education for 14- to 19-year-olds, and viewed by many in FE as unwelcome competition.

At the time, the closure was blamed on low student numbers, “significant financial challenges”, and a damning grade four Ofsted report early last year.

Lucy Powell

But two investigations by exam board OCR also influenced the Department for Education’s decision after it upheld two accusations of exam malpractice in a single subject. A separate investigation into malpractice in computing was also carried out.

Former shadow education secretary Lucy Powell, who is also the school’s local MP, described the case as “shocking” and raising “real concerns about weak oversight and accountability of our schools system”.

“Pupils, parents, teachers and the local community have been let down by terrible malpractice and unacceptable behaviour,” she added.

Mr Shevill told FE Week that the malpractice related to “concerns about the similarity of coursework”, and that an internal review had been undertaken to “stop such issues occurring again in the future”.

OCR’s investigation into computing resulted in no accusations being upheld, but as a result of the inquiry, exam results for the subject that should have been released to 27 students taking the qualifications last August were not received until October.

MCS has received at least £5 million in funding since 2014, while being run by the Collective Spirit Multi-Academy Trust.

It had received a financial notice to improve in June 2016 after misjudging pupil numbers, and announced it would be rebrokered to a new sponsor in January last year.

The school’s board was disbanded last May to be replaced with a new one.

Minutes reveal that former trustees who had run the school into heavy debt had access to its bank account four months after they left.

The new trustees admitted this is “not usual practice”, but Mr Shevill claimed the situation was “resolved” in September and insisted that no trustee had actually accessed the account.

The chair is also unsure why the former trustees hadn’t got staff to sign contracts since the school opened in 2014, but confirmed this issue had also been rectified.

There were also major issues with the school’s IT system.

This is a shocking case which raises real concerns about weak oversight and accountability

“In terms of server problems these need further investigation by to be able to clarify and resolve any issues,” minutes from June state. “Currently the system in place is not exam compliant, affects delivery of the curriculum and has safeguarding implications.”

They added that estimated costs to achieve safe filtering was £37,000.

A critical health and safety report into the school, which is currently teaching around 40 students, has also been shared with FE Week.

Carried out in November 2017, the school was given red ratings because there was no formal accident reporting procedure, no formal health and safety inspections, nor any policy on violence to staff.

The school’s most recent accounts, published last month, also revealed that £5,500 was owed to teachers’ pensions.

Mr Shevill told FE Week this issue was a “complex one”, adding: “There were a number of inaccuracies in the HR files and the 2016/17 pension return was not submitted on time.”

Work is “ongoing” to correct everything.

“This multi-academy trust [Collective Spirit] has brought our education system into disrepute, highlighting the fragility of the studio schools model and the need for more robust due diligence when new organisations seek to establish new schools,” said Ms Powell.

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