A FLAGSHIP free school in Bolton paid £900 for its chairman to stay at an upmarket Chicago hotel to attend an Apple event, an investigation has found.

The Olive Tree Primary School in Daubhill paid for the chairman of the board Abdul Aziz Chohan £901.57 to stay at the Intercontinental Chicago, according to a government agency.

An investigation by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) also revealed that The Olive Tree Primary School Bolton Ltd trust recruited Mr Chohan’s future bride into a senior position without going through a formal recruitment process ­— and that he sourced people he knew as paid consultants.

The EFSA report, published this week, identified “a number of significant weaknesses” at the school.

The trust has now been ordered to recover the hotel costs of the Chicago trip made by Mr Chohan in April 2018 ­— and has been warned it risks having its funding terminated.

The Olive Tree Primary School was Bolton’s first free school and has twice been rated outstanding by Ofsted.

The investigation also found that:

- The chair sourced a catering provider with no evidence of any procurement exercise or management of any potential conflicts.

- Four consultants provided educational support at a cost of £33,050, with two being existing trustees and all were “sourced by and known” to the chair.

- The chairman organised an event at the trust with visitors from Sweden, generating £11,730 for the trust but the trust only received £8,700 and after an enquiry it was found that £1,980 fee was deducted for the “time spent on the event by the chair” ­— the discussion about this payment was not minuted.

- The chair spoke an educational technology industry show, on behalf of an unnamed company in January 2019.

Mr Chohan confirmed he was not paid separately but it was included as part of a 120-day consultancy with Apple. To date the trust has spent £121,289 with the unnamed business.

The ESFA said: "The trust does not have robust policies and procedures to deal with conflicts of interest.

“The review identified significant breaches of the Academies Financial Handbook.

"Key findings include: the board of trustees have failed to manage related party transactions and significant conflicts of interests with its own trustees.

"This includes a lack of challenge and scrutiny over interests of the chair, the board of trustees have failed to ensure adequate oversight of key additional business areas, through a lack of policies, procedures and robust monitoring.

"This included the trust paying £911.87 expenses for the chair to attend an Apple event in Chicago, in breach of its Articles of Association.”


As well as being told to draw up an action plan ­— including implementation of new financial management ­— the trust was told it must consider joining a strong Multi Academy Trust (MAT).

A governance review by a National Leader of Education has been commissioned and an action plan has been submitted to the ESFA to address the weaknesses identified, according to the school's annual accounts.

In a statement the board of trustees said: "Governors can confirm that the payment for the chair’s accommodation was recouped in full in December 2019 and the Education and Skills Funding Agency are satisfied this aspect of the notice to improve has been complied with.”

A Bolton Apple Regional Training Centre is based at The Olive Tree Primary School, and offers educators in the local area the opportunity to learn how Apple technology can make a difference to teaching.

Mr Chohan played a part in introducing Apple iPod touch devices to the classroom at Essa Academy back in 2012­ — a groundbreaking scheme at the time,

Principal of The Olive Tree Primary School, Haroon Asghar said that Mr Chohan was still chair of the trust but that it was working to attract additional expertise to the Board.

He said: "The board continues to have confidence in Mr Chohan to act as our chair.

“As an outstanding school we are committed to working with the ESFA to ensure that the procedural points raised are addressed and we can continue to deliver the excellent education that our parents and pupils expect from us. Our financial position is strong and we carry healthy reserves to secure our school’s future.

“Governors have been proactive in commissioning a governance review well before the ESFA inspection and had already begun making improvements to Governance in order to be compliant with ESFA guidelines.

"Working with the ESFA, the board has sought external advice to address all concerns and will continue to work closely with the ESFA to meet the terms of the notice to improve."

Mr Asghar said that the board would “give full consideration" to the idea of joining a multi-academy trust and that any decision would be made in the “best interest of the pupils”.