Durand Academy bid process slammed as "toxic" by critics

The tender process for a new contract to represent the controversial Durand Academy has been slammed by critics as "toxic" and "less than straightforward" following an investigation by PRWeek.

The Durand Academy: Carrying out a tender for its public affairs and comms brief (Credit: James Emmett / Associated Newspapers/REX)
The Durand Academy: Carrying out a tender for its public affairs and comms brief (Credit: James Emmett / Associated Newspapers/REX)
The academy is currently considering agency bids to represent it in a wide-ranging contract that covers everything from media relations and reputation management through to overseeing planning and interacting with government education professionals.

The deadline for bids expired last Friday (30 January) and it is thought that up to 20 agencies might have applied.

The contract was held by PLMR until August and the agency has continued to represent the academy on an ad-hoc basis since then.

PLMR’s work for the academy won the agency two Cannes Gold PR Lions in 2011 but its relationship with the institution is controversial and questions were raised about it late last month at a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, where head teacher Sir Greg Martin was asked to give evidence.

Martin was forced to admit to the PAC that PLMR had been involved in drafting the new tender specification, after he was questioned on the issue by PAC chairman Margaret Hodge MP.

Sources in the education sector said they were less than happy about the transparency of the tender process, following the expiry of last Friday’s deadline.

 The tender looked less than straightforward and the briefing process toxic

Education sector source to PRWeek
One said: "Based on Sir Greg’s response at the PAC the tender looked less than straightforward and the briefing process toxic. Surely if the relationship between Sir Greg and PLMR was of such concern to the Government then the agency shouldn’t have had its fingerprints all over the contract tender?"

Another professional in the education sector expressed astonishment that their agency had not been approached to put in a bid.
"It’s extremely surprising that we’re not on the list to bid for this contract," the source said.

The academy was told by the Education Funding Agency last year that it must carry out a full open tender for the contract when the current one expired in August.

The EFA ordered the academy to tender the bid because PLMR’s managing director, Kevin Craig, sits on the board of the academy’s governing body, an arrangement the EFA considered to be "not sufficiently transparent" or compliant with the latest financial regulations for academies.

PLMR was told it could bid for the contract but only on a not-for-profit basis if Craig continued to sit on the academy’s board.

At the PAC, Sir Greg was asked to explain, among other things, the academy’s ongoing relationship with PLMR and why it needs the services of an agency of its calibre to achieve its goals.

It emerged during the two-hour PAC hearing that PLMR was paid £153,000 in the financial year 2010-11 and £244,000 during the following financial year, a total of nearly £400,000.

In a testy exchange with committee members, Sir Greg dismissed suggestions that there was a causal relationship between Craig being asked to sit on the academy’s board of governors and PLMR’s monthly remuneration more than doubling from £9,000 to £20,000.  

"It is not cause and effect," Sir Greg told the PAC. 

In the months since the contract expired, the PAC heard how the academy had paid PLMR an average of £16,000 a month to continue providing it services.

The new contract sent out by the academy to potential bidders, a copy of which has been seen by PRWeek, stipulates that the incumbent agency will need to provide up to 160 man hours per month, with a review of these requirements after three months.

Industry sources say the new contract would need three people to service it and would be worth around £50,000 a year.

The academy’s former finance director, Julian Geary, told PRWeek in November that a not-for-profit bid from PLMR would not preclude other agencies from bidding for the contract because it was seeking best value rather than best price but he did admit that a bid from the agency would "be of great interest" to the academy.

"If we’re not dissatisfied with PLMR, and we’re not, its bid would be of great interest, to say the least

Durand's former finance director Julian Geary to PRWeek in November
Speaking in November, Geary said: "If we’re not dissatisfied with PLMR, and we’re not, its bid would be of great interest, to say the least."

PLMR’s deputy managing director, Elin Twigge, told PRWeek that the agency had put in a bid for the contract and confirmed it would be on a not-for-profit basis. 

But Twigge would not be drawn on the potential benefit to PLMR of servicing a large contract at cost. 

"Lots of agencies do projects because they are committed to the project and committed to the cause – it’s exactly that

Elin Twigge of PLMR explains the value of working for Durand Academy at cost
Twigge said: "Lots of agencies do projects because they are committed to the project and committed to the cause – it’s exactly that."

She stressed that the academy’s governing body had complied with the regulations regarding its contract with PLMR and that the agency was not involved in the decision making regarding the new contract.

PLMR’s second-in-command evaded questions over how any agency could compete with a not-for-profit bid from an agency with a close relationship with the academy.

She said: "That would be pre-empting a fully competitive, independent pitch process."

PRWeek understands that the academy, which did not respond to requests for an interview, will make a decision regarding the contract by the end of February.

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