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School unit where head fraudulently used credit card could be shut down

16 Feb 2024 5 minute read
North Powys PRU in Newtown. Image via Google

Martin Shipton

A special school unit where the headteacher irregularly used a council credit card to order goods for his personal use is now at risk of closure as a result of spending cuts.

Last year Powys County Council was accused of seeking to cover up fraudulent purchases made with taxpayers’ money for a barn he was converting into Airbnb accommodation.

A whistleblower who reported what was going on at the North PRU (Pupil Referral Unit) in Newtown was initially told by the authority’s head of legal services there was no evidence of any irregularities.

The whistleblower was also present when another senior council official instructed an administrative worker in the unit to delete the school’s Amazon account, thus eliminating evidence of the unauthorised purchases. Unknown to the senior official, another administrator had copied details of the transactions, so the relevant information was retrievable.

Later, after the whistleblower informed Audit Wales what had happened, the council changed its stance and began a disciplinary investigation into the head teacher, Nick Ratcliffe, who resigned before he was sacked. The council has reported him to the Education Workforce Council, which could withdraw his licence to teach.

Powys council has two Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) – one in Newtown and one in Brecon. The units provide specialist teaching with extra support for pupils who have been excluded from schools due to behavioural issues, mental health issues and illness.

Local authorities are legally obliged to offer this kind of alternative school provision.

Draft budget

Now one of the units could be shut as part of its draft budget proposals for 2024/2025 to save just over £600,000 over the next two years.

At a meeting of the authority’s cabinet, councillors went through recommendations on the draft budget made by scrutiny committees. In order to balance next year’s budget, the council needs to make £10.652 million in cuts, savings, and income generation. One of the proposals is to “remodel the service delivery” for PRUs which could save the council £352,555 for 2024/2025 and a further £251,285 for the 2025/2026.

Members of the learning and skills scrutiny committee said the cabinet should look again at the proposal to close a PRU unit, asking it “to re-consider the impact the reduction in PRU would have on school budgets and staff well-being, with learners remaining at their home school. And reflect on vulnerable learners having to travel long distances.”

The cabinet has responded to the comments, partially accepting them and adding: “There have been no decisions about location of a site, and the full business case is being written that will include specific figures which will include the travel arrangements. Realised saving would be as a result of consolidating the service onto one site and may include potential savings related to utilities, travel costs and outreach support.”

Driving issues

At the meeting Conservative group leader Cllr Aled Davies said: “It’s difficult for members of the public to understand what the driving issue is here.” He asked whether closing one of the units would see more children just not being taught at all.

Cllr Davies said: “There are pupils not getting access to the PRU at the moment. There was a failure to describe the new model.”

Chair of the Learning and Skills scrutiny committee, Conservative Cllr Gwynfor Thomas, said: “We really did not see any evidence surrounding this – your response is that the business case is being put together. We didn’t know what closing one of the PRUs would mean.

“It’s very difficult for us to make any comments on whether it’s going to work when we really don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s very worrying we don’t know what extra pressure it will put on the schools or how that would affect the new ALN (Additional Learning Needs) strategy.

Education portfolio holder, Liberal Democrat Cllr Peter Roberts said: “The severity of problems that we face means we have to bring things forward more rapidly. The PRU paper is one example.”

Cllr Elwyn Vaughan, who leads the Plaid Cymru group, told Nation.Cymru: “There are a number of problems with this proposal which require further scrutiny. The pupils who go to these units need specialist support and won’t necessarily get that in mainstream schools. Powys is also very big. If they close one of these units, some pupils will have to spend a great deal of time travelling.”

A PRU employee who did not wish to be named said: “The council seems to be looking at this as a way of saving money. But its starting point should be the needs of the pupils concerned.” The draft budget will be debated and finalised at a council meeting on February 22.

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago

Not just a legal duty I hope, if they (councilors) gave back 10 pence a mile on their expenses that should cover it. Like closing the air-ambulance at Welshpool, an anti-the people’s best interest move…A bit of bad publicity goes a long way…

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