Surrey school bursar who plundered £500k and mocked 'Pritt Stick Brigade' parents convicted of fraud
A primary school bursar is facing jail after plundering more than £500,000 to splash out on holidays, cars and shopping sprees – while children were left lacking basic equipment.
Shameless Debbie Poole, 63, pocketed the fortune in a seven-year scam after being put in charge of finances at Hinchley Wood Primary School in Surrey.
She enjoyed a lavish lifestyle after siphoning off £490,000 from a special account set up to run after school and breakfast clubs between October 2011 and October 2018.
The manager also authorised her own pay rises to boost her annual salary to over £80,000 – more than most primary school headteachers are paid.
After Poole was found guilty of four counts of fraud at Kingston Crown Court parents told how their children’s education had suffered at the hands of Poole’s flagrant greed.
Primary school bursar Debbie Poole (left), 63, is facing jail after plundering more than £500,000 to splash out on holidays, cars and shopping sprees. Pictured: Debbie and Gary Poole pictured outside Kingston Crown on February 6
Poole (pictured here in an old Facebook photo) pocketed the fortune in a seven-year scam after being put in charge of finances at Hinchley Wood Primary School in Surrey
They told how tens of thousands of pounds raised by the PTA for the benefit of pupils ‘seemed to simply disappear’.
Their suspicions were raised when Poole began arriving for work in a succession of expensive new cars which she parked alongside headteacher Fiona Collins’ ‘old banger’.
And they revealed how years of raising funds through cake sales, summer fairs and raffles seemed to come to nothing while Poole was diverting cash into her personal accounts.
Meanwhile Poole and husband Gary, 67, were living the high life as they jetted off on a string of exotic holidays.
The couple enjoyed one five-star getaway in a deluxe bungalow suite with its own private pool at a Greek holiday resort.
They splashed out £13,000 for the 10-night stay at the exclusive Ikos Olivia resort in Thessaloniki in August 2018.
Earlier that year they paid £7,000 for a week’s stay at a luxury cottage for 15 people in Shipston-on-Stour on the edge of the Cotswolds.
The couple also enjoyed Christmas and New Year in Australia along with breaks in Venice and Amsterdam.
The court heard they visited ‘expensive shops’ and put down large deposits on three new cars including a £29,000 Peugeot SUV.
The couple also transferred nearly £70,000 to their two daughters.
One was able to put down a deposit to buy a house after £37,000 was paid into her partner’s account.
Gary, who was a co-defendant in the case, was cleared of a money laundering offence of acquiring criminal property.
After the jury delivered their verdicts, parents who had gathered every day to watch proceedings from the public gallery hit out at the bursar for ‘betraying their children’.
One mother-of-three who was a long-standing member of the PTA told MailOnline: ‘I’m gutted that she stole from our children and from us.
‘I would be out in the sun or the rain year after year at every school fair, every event working six or seven hours for free and you wonder what it was all for.
‘We were giving them money for playground equipment, astroturf. We’ll never know how much of that money she pocketed.
‘In a primary school the teachers are meant to provide pens, pencils, glue sticks etc. It got to the stage where children were coming home crying because they hadn’t stuck things in their books because they had no glue.
‘Mrs Poole would say “Oh here comes the Pritt Stick Brigade” when we tried to speak to her about it.
‘The school couldn’t afford to pay for trips even though we were all paying into a school fund.
‘Since she’s gone it’s a wonderful little school now. The right heads are in there, the right teaching staff are in there. It’s in a beautiful place now.’
Tina Booth, whose two children attended the school at the height of the scam, said: ‘We are delighted that justice has been served.
‘Parents have lost out. We were paying for the after school clubs out of our own pockets.
‘There were other issues as well. Lots of funds were going into the school but the children were not benefitting from them. Their education suffered as a result. It’s a disgrace.
‘We were raising money through all sorts of events – cake sales, balls and quiz nights and the money seemed to be going nowhere.
‘All the equipment wasn’t being replenished as expected.
‘While the school was suffering Debbie seemed to be thriving.
‘She would arrive at work in a nice car which she was constantly changing and upgrading. At one stage she had a sporty white Ford Cougar then towards the end she had her Peugeot SUV. She would park it up near the headteacher’s old Ford Fiesta.’
The court heard Poole boosted her salary by submitting false documents to dishonestly gain two pay rises and increase the number of hours she was rewarded for.
Poole, pictured outside Kingston Crown Court, boosted her salary by twice raising her own pay grade as well as increasing her contracted working weeks from 40 to 52 per year
The bursar – who worked at the school for 18 years – carried out the scam by forging Mrs Collins’ signature on documents and cheques.
Poole – who ran the after school club which was known as Woody’s – abused her position as signatory of the club’s account by transferring and using funds for her own benefit.
The fortune came from the pockets of parents who paid £18-a-day for their children to attend.
The clubs – which provided out of school activities and care – proved popular with busy working families and were attended by up to 70 pupils a session.
Poole would be handed cash paid by parents and was the financial supervisor of the clubs as well as being in control of the school’s finances and banking.
Investigators discovered that Poole transferred large sums of money from the Woody’s account into her own bank.
She also wrote school cheques out to herself.
The audacious scam was discovered after a whistleblower came forward following growing concerns over safeguarding issues at the school and allegations of ‘bullying and intimidation’.
Mrs Collins was suspended after an investigation was launched and a new head was brought in when she later resigned.
Surrey County Council auditors were called in after concerns were raised over the school’s finances.
Poole joined Hinchley Wood – which has more than 600 pupils aged four to 11 – as school secretary in February 2000 before becoming senior administration officer four years later.
She took greater control of finances after being appointed school business manager in 2011 and was part of the senior leadership team.
Poole boosted her salary by twice raising her own pay grade as well as increasing her contracted working weeks from 40 to 52 per year.
She made a false claim to Surrey County Council’s payroll team that she was working 30 hours a week administering the school clubs.
Poole was arrested by police at her home in nearby Surbiton in October 2018.
Officers seized piles of documents including paperwork for ‘holidays and expensive shops’.
Suspicions were raised when Poole (pictured) began arriving for work in a succession of expensive new cars which she parked alongside headteacher Fiona Collins’ ‘old banger’
They recovered school cheque books and bank statements, 48 of which were in unopened envelopes, along with similar documents relating to the after school club and their own bank statements.
Surrey County Council insisted lessons had been learned from the case.
A spokesperson said: ‘We are glad to see this case come to a conclusion and the perpetrator be brought to justice.
‘This was a calculated and deceitful theft of school money that should have been used to enhance the education and extracurricular experience of children.
‘Thankfully this theft was uncovered without long lasting damage to the school, which is now thriving under new leadership.
‘There is no doubt that the wrongdoing went undetected for too long, and there should be no way in which somebody in this position should be able to act in this way to such an extent.
‘In this particular case, funds were stolen from non-public or private funds such as donations and payments for school trips etc. However, it is expected that private or non-public funds are accounted for by schools’ governing bodies under the same strict regulations required of public funds, which should be independently audited each year.
‘Surrey County Council provided additional leadership and support to Hinchley Wood Primary as a school of concern and drafted in additional leadership and management oversight from the Lumen Learning Trust. It was members of the Lumen Learning Trust team who ultimately uncovered the theft.
‘Hinchley Wood Primary School is now part of a Multi Academy Trust and is in a healthy financial position delivering a high quality education for local children.’
Poole, who has no previous convictions, is due to be sentenced next month.