An administrator who defrauded an exclusive London preparatory school out of more than £150,000 avoided jail today.
Valerie Barber, 56, convinced parents at £18,500 a year Pembridge High School in Notting Hill to pay fees directly into her personal bank account.
Barber even wired money she ‘borrowed’ from the school into her own account between December 8th 2010 and May 19th 2014.
The missing £151,957 was only discovered during an accounts audit and now Barber faces the sack from the £6,170-a-term girls’ school.
Popular with celebrities, Pembridge Hall has taken in the kin of famous models, designers and TV stars.
It is part of the Alpha Plus Group of top independent prep school and the sister school of neighbouring Wetherby School for boys, which was attended by Princes William and Harry.
Princess Diana also famously ran in the mothers’ race on sports day there.
Today Barber sobbed in the dock as Isleworth Crown Court heard she was depressed because her husband couldn’t work and feared for the life of her son serving in Afghanistan.
Dressed in black, Barber, of Glenfield Terrace, Ealing, avoided jail by a “whisker” for one count of fraud, receiving a 20-month sentence suspended for two years.
Martin Lewis, prosecuting, said: “During the entire period records show she prevailed upon parents to pay monies into her own bank account rather than the school bank account.
“Money transferred from parents to her private account was essentially on a fairly regular basis – on average £1,000-£2,000 a time.
“There was no attempt to conceal those transfers. She didn’t lay a complicated trail and it was pretty transparent.
“When it was detected the defendant was contacted and she owned up immediately and made no attempt to diminish what she had done.
“She was charged and put forward no explanation why she had taken the money, and there are no details as to what she spent it on.
“It would appear she said to the probation officer there were bills and expenses to pay.”
Mr Lewis continued: “This does involve a breach of trust, certainly over a lengthy period of time and repeated acts of dishonesty.
“There does appear to have been some contrivance to avoid detection by pressuring parents to pay money into that account.
“It circumvented the school’s involvement and made it more difficult for the school to detect. She has also transferred money from the school’s bank account to her own.
“She certainly had funds in her account at the time. This was not a case where she had no funds whatsoever, while she was also receiving a salary.”
Amiot Vollenweider, mitigating, said that fortunately the school was insured.
Describing the ruse, he said: “It had little prospect of success and was committed during a time when she was in debt and suffering from financial hardship.”
He continued: “She was struggling both with her own depression and the fact that her husband was unable to work and the subsequently the financial burden was on her.
“She had a son serving in Afghanistan whose life she feared for and had a mother at the time suffering from Alzheimer’s who died in 2013.
“She turned, it would seem, to drinking excessively and what started out originally as a thought to simply borrow the money and pay it back, spiraled dramatically out of her control.
“There is a good risk of her husband being rendered homeless because this defendant runs the risk of being imprisoned.
“It was a matter of luck rather than anything else that it was able to continue for four years, but frankly it was not sophisticated in the slightest.”
Barber remains in £30,000 of debt, and it is a “reality” she will lose her job despite having paid back £26,104 to the school, including £5,000 to parents.
Ordering her to complete 250 of unpaid work and to adhere to a three-month curfew, Judge Robin Johnson said: “Employers should be able to trust employees to act in an honest way, not for selfish gain.
“It took a long time for your crime to be discovered, and I accept that no blame was cast on anybody else.
“By sending you to prison immediately it would probably make you homeless and have a disastrous effect upon your family.
“I consider I can avoid sending you to prison immediately by a whisker, but you come about as near to going to prison as you can.”
Judge Johnson said in view of Barber’s “parlous” financial situation any financial penalty would be left to another jurisdiction.
The non-selective Anglican school, founded in 1979, teaches 110 day girls aged four to 11.