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How headteacher bid to cover up school fraud as net closed in

By John Scott | Smethwick | Crime | Published:

Shamed Michelle Hollingsworth made a desperate bid to cover her tracks after Sandwell Council’s fraud squad launched a criminal investigation into the finances of Smethwick’s Annie Lennard School.

Michelle Hollingsworth pictured at the school 12 years ago

The doomed headteacher attempted to escape justice by telling the school’s caretaker Richard Phillips contractors had done work on the premises whilst he was away.

He was employed full time and had not seen any works carried out that he had not been aware of.

She ordered staff to check all storage areas and dispose of items that did not comply with health and safety rules at the start of the 2015/16 academic year.

Small children’s clothing with the store labels still attached were found in a storage bin in the nursery conservatory.

There were lots of black bin bags full of women’s clothing in sizes 8-10, boys’ clothes, shoes and even a silky nightie in the school hall cupboard.

Coppice House, the home of Michelle Hollingsworth and her husband Joseph

Staff also unearthed a stag’s head, a glass candle holder, toys, pictures and a large roll of fabric.

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Deborah Jones said the head destroyed all the paperwork and other staff saw Hollingsworth sitting outside the school office emptying files of paper which were then torn up and put into bin bags.

The school secretary and headteacher knew where the incriminating documents were and so it was unsurprising that so many of them had disappeared when they were both suspended in October 2015.

Investigators found all the relevant financial paperwork had vanished when they arrived to launch the inquiry at the school.

They had to rely on documents from stores involved in the shopping sprees and some paperwork provided by Jones whose computer – full of details of the fraud – was also missing.

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Michelle Hollingsworth is facing jail after being convicted of fraud

Hollingsworth said she bought antiques together with expensive childrens’ clothing and toys for the school as part of her ‘vision’ that the pupils should have nice things to wear and look at.

She also conceded furniture was “stored” at her home.

The head did her best to push all the blame onto Jones who, she said, dealt with all the school’s finances.

Jones uploaded false invoices on to the computer system which disguised the real purchases and made them sound like educational aids.

The school secretary claimed to have copied these from lists hand-written by the headteacher.

Hollingsworth produced two oil paintings, an antique wall clock, five pairs of curtains and a roll of material she maintained had come from the school in 2016 as she frantically attempted to explain away the fraud.

She arrived at an interview with investigators armed with a £10,000 cheque, made payable to Annie Lennard school, covering at least 15 pieces of furniture supposedly bought for the school that had been “stored” at her large home in Hatherton Park, Cannock.

Michelle Hollingsworth pictured at Annie Lennard School in November 2007

They included chairs, a desk, bed, mirror and small bench and had been bought from her by a business acquaintance of her builder husband Joe, the jury heard. The haul included an antique chair that had cost £875.

She explained: “I believe 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.”

Her other purchases included £787 worth of oak beams and paint costing £65-a-tin. She also had two paintings and a £600 clock valued.

Jones admitted fraudulently pocketing £77,000 by entering phantom details into the financial system of non existent work supposedly done at the school by her labourer husband David who knew nothing about the scam.

She admitted conspiring with the headteacher – who she claimed had offered her £30,000 to take all the blame. The court heard Michelle Hollingsworth joined forces with her husband Joe and brother-in-law Michael Dewsbury in a bid to persuade carpenter and builder Robert McKeown to take all the blame by declaring he was a rogue trader who had conned the headteacher and the school.

Knowing that 37-year-old McKeown had been paid £40,500 for work at the the school, some of which had not been done, they advised him it would be better for everybody if just one person was involved.

But the builder turned the tables on them, admitting his guilt and blowing the whistle on the corrupt headteacher.

Pair were force behind the deceit

The headteacher and her secretary were the driving force of the fraud.

These are the charges they faced during a trial that stretched over several weeks:

Michelle Hollingsworth, aged 55, lives in large house in Hatherton Park, Cannock.

She and builder husband Joe also own eight flats.

Annie Lennard Primary School

The former headteacher at Annie Lennard Primary School in The Oval Smethwick had taught there for 29 years before being suspended in October 2015.

She denied all nine charges she faced, blaming Deborah Jones and insisting she knew nothing about finance and could not use a computer despite being authorised as the ‘approver’ of the schools’s financial system.

She was convicted of:

1. Conspiring with Deborah Jones between January 22 2010 and 25 September 2015 to defraud both Sandwell Council and Annie Lennard Primary School by dishonestly raising false invoices and false purchase orders for goods and services for Annie Lennard Primary School in relation to works purportedly carried out at the school by ESR Building Maintenance, Oldland Limited and Johns Upholstery and Interiors.

2. Fraud with her husband Joseph Hollingsworth between June 20 2009 and November 24 2010 allegedly involving his businesss by way of invoices submitted, purchase orders raised and receiving/facilitating payments which were, and they knew were, untrue or misleading.

3. Conspiring with Robert McKeown trading as RPM Carpentry to defraud, involving his work carried out or purported to have been carried out at the school between April 3 2014 and September 9 2015.

4. Similar offence with Deborah Jones and Nathan Cooper involving goods and services provided for the school by Cooper trading as TC Sports between September 1 2014 and October 1 2015.

5. Similar offence with Deborah Jones and Andrew Feltham involving work carried out or purported to have been done at the school by AB Windows and Burntwood Aluminium Systems between February 1 2009 and October 20 2015.

6. Similar offence with Stephen Roberts involving goods and services supplied or purported to be supplied by Roberts between July 1 2010 and November 26 2012.

7. Conspiring with Joseph Hollingsworth and Michael Dewsbury between September 1 2015 and May 10 2018, with intent to pervert the course of justice, by attempting to persuade Robert McKeown to give a false account to Sandwell Council in an attempt to assist Michelle Hollingsworth to avoid criminal liability.

She was cleared of:

8. Conspiring with Fiona Dewsbury between November 6 2014 and July 10 2015 to defraud Sandwell Council by submitting false invoices, raising false purchase orders and facilitating/receiving payments in relation to Fiona Dewsbury’s provision of special education needs services at Annie Lennard Primary School.

9. Similar offence with Deborah Jones and Daniel Feltham involving work carried out or purported to have been carried out at the school by Daniel Feltham trading as Unique Building between November 1 2013 and February 27 2014.

Deborah Jones leaving Wolverhampton Crown Court during the trial

Deborah Jones, aged 57 and from Barrs Road, Cradley Heath, was former School Secretary at Annie Lennard Primary.

She started at the school on a six month contract during the 1995/96 academic year.

She raised purchase orders and put them into the financial system but maintained none would be entered without the signature of the headteacher.

She pleaded guilty to conspiring with Michelle Hollingsworth to defraud (see charge 1) and admitted inventing £77,000 worth of work supposedly done by her labourer husband at the school which was paid into their joint account without his knowledge.

She also admitted putting in false details in the school’s finances to cover up non educational purchases made by her and the headteacher she alleged wrote out the bogus list for her to copy, which Hollingsworth denied.

Jones was convicted of charges 4&5 and found not guilty to charge 9 as listed above.

John Scott

By John Scott
Reporter/News Feature Writer

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