'Shameful' mum swindled Devon pre-school out of £65K to buy perfume and groceries

Bassetts Farm Pre-School in Exmouth
Bassetts Farm Pre-School in Exmouth -Credit:DevonLive

A Devon pre-school was brought to financial ruin by a "greedy" administrator who plundered its savings to buy herself perfume, moisturiser and furniture, a court heard. Claire Precious cheated Bassetts Farm Pre-School out of £65,000.

Over a five-year period she used school bank cards to make 220 purchases on Amazon, Argos and other sites. She even used its money to do her food shops at Asda.

After buying a new sofa from The Range she dropped her old one off at the school saying she no longer needed it, Exeter Crown Court was told. On the day she was arrested a parcel containing moisturiser was delivered to her house.

Other items, including a set of blinds and a water dispenser, were found at the defendant's home in Exmouth. The volunteer chairman of the pre-school, a registered charity employing seven paid members of staff with 50 children on its books, said after the hearing that the pre-school has since closed.

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The defendant, a 49-year-old mum-of-three, of Madagascar Close, Exmouth, admitted fraud. She could give no explanation for her swindle. Judge James Adkin said the explanation was simple. "It's because she's greedy," he said.

He spared Precious jail after promises the money would be paid back and she was given a two-year suspended sentence with unpaid work.

He told the defendant: "In 2018 you took over as the administrator and systematically defrauded the pre-school over five years.

"The mechanism by which you perpetrated this was to use the school-related bank accounts for a plethora of materials from sites such as Amazon and Argos and made 220 purchases from Amazon and a multiplicity from Argos."

Prosecutor Zoe Kuyken said Precious had previously worked as a social worker before taking over from the previous administrator. Independent auditing of the accounts stopped and she was the only person who had a card.

Suspicions were first raised when a member of staff noticed Precious had a pay increase of nearly £10,000 between 2018 and 2020. Other members of staff also had difficulty getting access to the account and noticed passwords had been changed.

Staff became concerned and police launched an investigation which led to Precious being arrested in January 2023.

The chairman of the pre-school, Daniel Moore, accessed the school Amazon account and noticed multiple archived purchases, including Calvin Klein perfume. The total value of the purchases was £5,660. When he went to see Precious in her home the chairman noticed some of the purchases about the house.

"Numerous orders had been made to different accounts in the school's name," said the prosecutor. They included the Asda and Argos accounts. There were also cash withdrawals, the largest being £500.

Precious continued to work at the school until her arrest and admitted increasing her pay without consent.

Miss Kuyken said the fraud was a "significant abuse of power, trust and responsibility." Mr Moore said in a statement the whole incident had been very upsetting.

"The pre-school is a charity and she knew that," he said. "The fact she stole so much money from a charity is utterly abhorrent and shameful."

He said Precious had given little or no thought to the consequences of her actions and would have continued unnoticed if she could have.

The defendant has no previous conviction, said Miss Rachel Smith in mitigation. "At no point has she sought to minimise her offending," she added. "She struggles with it every and why she did what she did."

Precious is sorry for her behaviour and does understand the impact on the school, said Miss Smith. She cannot explain her actions but has fairly significant mental health issues and health-related anxiety.

An initial repayment of £13,000 was made by Precious' parents. In total, about £31,000 has now been repaid and "all the money would be repaid," in due course.

Judge Adkin said the defendant could be rehabilitated. She must do 220 hours of unpaid work and 40 rehabilitation days with probation as part of the sentence.