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Corrupt headteacher and secretary face prison after thousands of pounds syphoned from school

By John Scott | Smethwick | Crime | Published: | Last Updated:

The primary school's budget was plundered for potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Michelle Hollingsworth and Secretary Deborah Jones

A corrupt headteacher and her school secretary face long jail sentences after being convicted of a fraud that may have involved hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Michelle Hollingsworth and 57-year-old Deborah Jones systematically syphoned cash from Annie Lennard Primary in Smethwick by using the school’s cheques on spending sprees at far flung boutique shops.

They bought a wide range of luxury products ranging from expensive designer clothes to antique furniture, oil paintings, £70-a-pot paint and antique lamp posts while conspiring together to defraud the school and Sandwell Council from January 2010 and September 2015.

Receipts and purchase orders were doctored to make it look as if the goods had been bought from educational suppliers.

The pair also plotted with builders and traders who they paid with school cash for jobs that were either not done or vastly overpriced in the expectation of pocketing kick-backs from the deals.

Among those to benefit was 55-year-old year old Hollingsworth’s builder husband Joe who cashed in with misleading and false invoices and purchase orders.

Another involved was Andrew Feltham who ran AB Windows and Burntwood Aluminium Systems.

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Outside Wolverhampton Crown Court Joseph Hollingsworth

He admitted conspiring with the headteacher and secretary to defraud Sandwell Council and the school with false invoices and overcharging while being paid over £200,000 from February 2009 to October 2015.

Mr Mark Jackson, prosecuting on behalf of Sandwell Council, told the Wolverhampton Crown Court jury Michelle Hollingsworth “used the school’s money as her personal bank for years.”

The jury convicted six of the nine defendants and acquitted Joe Hollingsworth’s sister Fiona Dewsbury, her daughter Elaine Dewsbury and Andrew Feltham’s son Daniel.

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Judge Simon Ward said the fraud could have involved hundreds of thousands of pounds and warned of long jail terms.

A crime driven by greed

The sheer brass neck and greed of the fraud that systematically drained many thousands of pounds from the coffers of a primary school beggared belief.

The most shocking element of the crime was that it was masterminded by its own headteacher and supported by the school secretary, writes the Express & Star's John Scott.

Michelle Hollingsworth, now 55, had worked at Annie Lennard Primary in The Oval, Smethwick, for 29 years and had been its headteacher since 2005 while Deborah Jones started work there towards the end of 1995.

But the key date for the female fraudsters was 2010 when it became a ‘cheque book school’ which meant it ran the finances of the school previously handled by the local authority, Sandwell Council.

The system was open to abuse by unscrupulous members of staff armed with the authority to sign the school cheques which had been given to both of them.

Hollingsworth and 57-year-old Jones, from Barrs Road, Cradley Heath, worked in the same office.

They had the power and needed no further encouragement to seize the opportunity and plunder school funds for about five years until the racket was uncovered in 2015.

Guilty

Clockwise from left, Michael Dewsbury, Stephen Roberts and Nathan Cooper were found guilty

Between March 2010 and September 2015, tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of invoices and receipts were put through the school’s financial system on the basis that goods and services had been paid for personally by the headteacher thereby entitling her to be reimbursed by the school, said Mr Mark Jackson, prosecuting.

He accepted that these included some legitimate purchases but maintained she used Annie Lennard Primary’s money as her own with a “conveyor belt” of cheques for the personal enrichment of the double dealing duo, the Wolverhampton Crown Court jury was told.

The pair travelled far and wide on shopping trips – sometimes in work time – to boutiques and luxury stores using the the school’s cash to buy items ranging from expensive designer clothes and shoes to antique furniture and paintings.

Hollingsworth concocted stories to explain why a school cheque was used to purchase the goods that were put to one side until it was cleared by the bank.

The items were then collected in person by the women who, for obvious reasons, declined free delivery to the school.

Details of the hauls – often totalling thousands of pounds – were altered to make the purchases appear more appropriate for primary school pupils before being imputed into Annie Lennard’s financial system.

They blew £6,000 on one trip and spent a total of £16,000 on several visits to a shop called Chic Interiors which was 113 miles away in Nantwich, Cheshire.

Its title was changed to Chic Supplies on school records in a bid to cover up the type of item bought.

Annie Lennard Primary School

But the store’s manager revealed the doctored purchase order which appeared on the school’s financial system included products it had never sold.

Invoices produced by Carwarden Brick and Tile Company in Rugeley showed school cheques purchased a wide variety of items between 2011 and the end of 2014.

These included four eight foot and five 11 foot high lampposts with copper tops, the last of which cost up to £340 each. The school’s supplier account reduced the firm’s title to simply Carwarden.

A 1920s recliner chair and oak pedestal table bought from Golden Oldies Antiques and Reproduction Furniture in Penkridge in 2013 became an office chair and office table on the purchase order submitted to Sandwell Council.

Oldland Shopfitters Ltd from Cannock was run by two people, one of whom died on April 7 2016 and so it was not possible to fully investigate his involvement with the school, its headteacher and secretary.

The prosecution said almost all the work the firm were paid for was never carried out defrauding £44,000 from the school.

False information about purchases from dozens of shops was imputed onto the school’s financial system by Jones – who was said to have copied hand written instructions from the head who tried to keep her fingerprints off any tell tale detail of the fraud.

When it started to unravel she dumped all the blame on the 57-year-old school secretary who, she maintained, was in charge of spending because she was “not good at financing” and trusted other people to “do their job”.

Hollingsworth was said to have pocketed petty cash and money paid into the school by parents for their children’s dinners, trips and fund raising.

The annual fund of such payments plunged from more than £21,000 in 2009/10 – before the fraud took off – to less that £4,000 at its height five years later.

The slump ended after the suspension of the head and school secretary in October 2015.

Cleared

From left, Elaine Dewsbury, Daniel Feltham and Fiona Dewsbury were found not guilty

The fund soared to almost £25,000 the following year. By 2016/17, when there were 83 more pupils than in 2014/15, it was over £60,000.

The two women were also accused of siphoning off vast amounts of money in kick backs on deals with traders who were paid for jobs that either had not been done or were grossly over priced.

Jones admitted her husband David’s business, ESR Building Maintenance, was paid £77,000 for invented work supposedly done at the school between March 2010 and May 2015.

Cheques were made out in the name of D. Jones instead of the business, meaning it could refer to either him or her, allowing her to pay the money into their joint bank account without his knowledge.

She claimed to have shared the cash with the headteacher who denied the allegation.

Furniture taken from and returned to Hollingsworth’s home in Hatherton Park, Cannock, was upholstered at a cost of more than £9,000 and paid for with Annie Lennard School cheques.

Her builder husband Joe denied knowing anything about the fraud.

Full coverage of the trial

Take a look back at coverage of the trial from the Express & Star's reporting team.

His business – Joseph Hollingsworth Ltd of which she was a director until quitting in January 2015 – was given about £25,000 of work at the primary school without going out to tender between September 2009 and November 2010.

Cheques were made out to him personally rather than the company, at least one of which was signed by his wife who, at that time, was a co-director and joint shareholder in the business.

Her husband’s sister Fiona Dewsbury, who lives next door to her and works at a different school as a teaching assistant, was found not guilty of defrauding the school while helping them with special educational needs.

She was “absolutely devastated” to be implicated in the alleged fraud and had not spoken to her sister-in-law since.

Mrs Dewsbury’s daughter Elaine’s then partner 37-year-old Robert McKeown from Hill Street, Hednesford, who traded as RPM Carpentry, was paid £40,500 for work at the school.

He admitted submitting false invoices and receiving payment for jobs that were never done from which he allegedly gave a share to the head. Elaine Dewsbury was acquitted of attempting to pervert the course of juctice.

Mrs Dewsbury’s other daughter Michelle’s boyfriend Nathan Cooper, aged 28 of Pebble Mill Drive, Cannock and trading as TC Sports, received up to £74,000 for providing equipment, sporting activities and coaching at the school during term time and holidays and carried on working for the school for three years after the start of the fraud investigation. He denied doing anything wrong but was found guilty.

Tens of thousands of pounds were taken from school finances

Andrew Feltham, aged 57 from Waterside, Norton Canes, who ran double glazing businesses AB Windows and Burntwood Aluminium Systems, admitted submitting false invoices and overcharging while receiving more than £200,000 over six years for work, some of which was invented.

His son 33-year-old Daniel Feltham of Grove Close, Norton Canes, was acquitted of putting in false invoices for the work carried out by his own business, which is called Unique Building. He insisted the two jobs he did were properly completed.

Kitchen fitter Stephen Roberts aged 60 from Great Saredon, Shareshill said the headteacher asked him to get items for Annie Lennard Primary before she made out cheques from the school for more than the cost of the goods to get back cash in hand “so she could pay people at the school.”

He claimed he met the Hollingsworths at her home to discuss supplying and fitting a kitchen which they could not agree on but he alleged she arranged to overpay him for wash basins, taps, radiators and toilets for the school after which he handed her £1,000 cash.

Roberts admitted he should not have done this but denied receiving work he had not done at the school insisting he did not even know where it was.

School financial records show he was paid over £21,500 for jobs including removing concrete, tree shrubs, repairing roofs and brickwork.

These were false and there was evidence he received almost £10,000 worth of school cheques. He was found guilty of conspiracy to defraud.

Elaine Dewsbury was cleared of joining forces with her headteacher aunt, uncle Joe Hollingsworth, and father Michael Dewsbury in an attempt to pervert the course of justice by trying to get her then partner McKeown to take all the blame for the fraud. The other three were found guilty.

The two men were said to have told McKeown they would get a top London barrister to represent him and pay all his legal costs if he did as he was told.

Michael Dewsbury was alleged to have admitted paying £20,000 into his daughter’s bank account to “help” McKeown, who was driven to plead guilty and gave evidence against the guilty parties.

Sentencing will take place on dates to be confirmed.

John Scott

By John Scott
Reporter/News Feature Writer

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