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'I can’t use a computer' says headteacher at centre of school fraud trial

By John Scott | Smethwick | Crime | Published:

A headteacher accused of being at the centre of a massive fraud at her school told investigators she was “not good at financing” and can't use a computer, a jury heard.

Michelle Hollingsworth was the headteacher at Annie Lennard Primary School

Michelle Hollingsworth alleged that Deborah Jones, the school secretary at Annie Lennard Primary in Smethwick, was in charge of its spending.

The 55-year-old head said she concentrated on the pupils and their parents and “trusted other people to do their job”, Wolverhampton Crown Court was told.

The comments came during a voluntary interview with counter-fraud investigators from Sandwell Council on March 22, 2016, said Mr Mark Jackson, prosecuting.

Spending sprees

The two women are accused of going on spending sprees at boutique shops during which handbags, shoes and furniture were bought with school cheques with purchase orders claiming the goods were educational.

It was alleged they had items put to one side until the cheque was cleared and then returned to collect them, ignoring offers of free delivery.

Deborah Jones was the school secretary

Hollingsworth claimed that if the purchases included personal items for her she would give the money to 57-year-old Jones to settle up with the store rather than paying directly.

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She said they also bought birthday or leaving presents for members of staff and admitted some of the trips were taken during school time but argued: “Some times it is not best to make an educational visit on a Saturday because it could be very different on a Tuesday.”

£10,000 cheque

The defendant arrived at the voluntary interview with a £10,000 cheque, made payable to Annie Lennard Primary, from the sale of at least 15 pieces of furniture supposedly bought for the school that had been “stored” at her home in Hatherton Park, Cannock.

They included chairs, a desk, bed, mirror and small bench and were bought by an business acquaintance of her builder husband Joe, it was said. The haul included an antique chair that cost £875.

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She explained: “I believed they were good value items. They were quirky and would be helpful to the children but we were not ready for the school to go in the direction I wanted it to.”

Annie Lennard Primary School in Smethwick

Her other purchases included £787 worth of oak beams and paint costing around £65-a-tin, the court was told.

The sale took place in January 2016 several months after her suspension and she should not have been doing anything involving the school.

She told the interviewers: “I thought that meant physically attending the school.” She also had two paintings and a £600 clock valued.

Headteacher 'can't use computer'

She spent all her 29-year teaching career at Annie Lennard Primary and was headteacher for around ten years before being suspended, along with Jones, in September 2015.

There was no written guideline for purchasing goods for the school, the jury was told.

Hollingsworth said during the interview: “Mrs Jones was the finance manager. I was pretty much led by her. She would input information onto the computer. I have never done it because I can’t use one.

"I never authorised a payment on a computer. Everything was done by Debbie. I didn’t do anything in relation to the finances.”

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She maintained she had never completed a school cheque – which needed two signatures – insisting she only signed those that were either completed or blank.

A desktop computer and paper files detailing the school’s spending either disappeared or “had to be destroyed” after being stored in a room prone to damp before investigators could get their hands on them, the court heard.

When asked about her relationship with Jones she allegedly replied: “I have worked with her for about 20 years but have not got an ounce of an out of school relationship between us.”

Jones from Barrs Road, Cradley Heath has pleaded guilty to conspiring with the headteacher to defraud the school and Sandwell Council.

She denies allegations that she conspired with others in the fraud that allegedly ran between June 2009 and October 2015.

Hollingsworth, who claims to have loaned £1,500 to Jones because she “felt sorry for her,” denies all charges of conspiring with a variety of people, including the school secretary, to defraud. She also denies attempting to pervert the course of justice.

The trial continues.

John Scott

By John Scott
Reporter/News Feature Writer

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