College ‘run like Tesco’ says former governor

Barnfield College campus in New Bedford Road, Luton
Barnfield College campus in New Bedford Road, Luton

A former Barnfield College governor has said Sir Peter Birkett “tried to run the college like Tesco”.

Jim Thakoordin, former equality and quality manager of Barnfield College said Sir Peter’s method was to “stack students high and sell them cheap”.

Barnfield College, opening higher Education centre

Barnfield College, opening higher Education centre

He slammed the governing body as “a social club for drinking and dining” and criticised them for not challenging Sir Peter during his reign –something which government reports published on Friday also noted.

Mr Thakoordin, who worked at the College from 1993 to 2005, said: “I am not surprised to see the College in difficulty. The governing body were just a drinking and dining club. They would have very lavish lunches at the students’ restaurant and have a great time then be sent off happily on their way. They did very little to question what was going on.

“They are supposed to be the purse holder of the public, guarding the public and the students against misappropriation of funds but they failed.”

Government reports by the Skills Funding Agency and Education Funding Agency found “irregular and improper” expenditure including thousands of pounds spend on staff parties, alcohol, “significant quantities of chocolate”, gifts for staff and marble plaques to commemorate Sir Peter’s knighthood.

The damning reports criticised “lack of oversight” by the governors, the failure to hold timely formal Board meetings or provide budget approvals and forecasts.

Mr Thakoordin, a former councillor, said: “There were professional people like bees round a honey pot. The status of being a governor of one of the most successful colleges was very appealing. But the causal staff and teachers would be screwed over even though they were doing a fabulous job.”

During his time at the Federation Sir Peter awarded significant salary increases to senior members of staff in Barnfield Education services (BES) with no independent oversight or appropriate authority.

Conflicts of interest were uncovered - for example a local firm with which the Chair of Barnfield Academy Trust was involved, carried out work for the Federation which was not subject to procurement processes.

Mr Thakoordin said: “I feel angry that Mr Birkett and his team have brought what I thought was a great college into such disrepute.”

Mr Thakoodin’s contract at the College was terminated shortly after Sir Peter’s arrival in 2005.

Sir Peter said he has signed a confidentiality agreement which means he could not comment on questions put to him by the Luton News concerning his pay-offs, expensive failed projects and the college culture.

He said: “It is pleasing that the lengthy investigation has come to an end allowing Barnfield to build on these recommendations and prepare itself to again provide great opportunities for the students.”

Sir Peter resigned from the Federation in July last year. A new interim CEO, Dame Jackie Fisher, has now been appointed.