A TRUSTED former finance manager who stole up to £188,000 from Keswick School to fund an "extravagant" lifestyle has been jailed for two years and eight months.

Ghislain Sharron Smithson, 52, who admitted the theft, stole the money as she worked at the school for a decade until 2018, taking advantage of a computer software fault that gave her unfettered access to the school's bank accounts, Carlisle Crown Court heard.

For years, she covered up her thefts by creating fake invoices.

The court heard how Smithson used the school’s money to fund several foreign holidays.

Her crime came to light after the defendant left her job to work elsewhere in 2018 one of her former colleagues became suspicious.

Smithson, of Sandybeck Way, Cockermouth, admitted stealing £170,000, though the prosecution believes that the true amount she illegally took was in the region of £188,000, the court heard.

Gerard Rogerson, prosecuting, outlined how Smithson worked at Keswick School as a finance manager from 2008 until 2018.

“Her responsibilities included maintenance of the school bank accounts and arranging payments from school funds for goods and services ordered by the school,” said the lawyer.

Smithson had day-to-day control of the school finances.

But a computer software problem meant that she was able to bypass the usual requirement for there to be two people signing off payments, said Mr Rogerson. When she moved on to a new job, a finance officer at the school checked the accounts and became suspicious. Further investigations were made when Ruth Lawler took up a post at the school as Director of Finance and Operations.

“Mrs Lawler detailed the various irregularities found with the school bank accounts," said Mr Rogerson.

“These centred on payments, supported by fake invoices being made to two separate bank accounts in the name of the Defendant – a Nationwide account and a Vanquis Bank account.”

During her years in the job, Smithson repeatedly used the school’s cash to pay for expensive foreign holidays..

They included a ten-day break in Antigua in September 2017, costing £4,700 – almost entirely paid for out of school funds. Smithson also spent £4,000 of the school’s money on a Jet2 holiday in May, 2016.

Between May 2014 and May 2018, more than £100,000 was paid from the school funds to a Vanquis Bank account held in the name of the defendant, said Mr Rogerson.

Smithson also used school cash for smaller purchases, including £212 she spent on a turntable and speaker from Amazon in December 2017.

Judith McCullough, for the defendant, said Smithson was herself shocked by the scale of her thefts.

A woman of hitherto good character, the defendant and her family had been doing well at the time of the 2008 financial crash, running a successful pub and catering firm in Cockermouth.

But the disastrous floods of the following year had wiped out the business. Their insurance claim had left them with a £25,000 shortfall.

In 2011, she and her husband were made bankrupt. “All of the security she felt she had built up in her 40s had gone,” said Miss McCullough. Smithson also suffered a series of bereavements.

The barrister added that Smithson felt very sorry for the consequences of her thefts.

Reacting to the revelation, Keswick School’s Head Teacher Simon Jackson said: “It has been devastating to discover that an employee has stolen such a large sum of money over the years.

“Her actions have taken money away from some of the most vulnerable and deprived school children – and she sat in meetings where these hard decisions were made.

“These actions, in breach of trust have harmed children, their families and the educational profession.

“The austerity of the last 7 years has made the life of the school tough. Hard decisions were taken and it was a struggle to find ways to reduce expenditure, whilst trying to avoid redundancies.

“Some posts were left vacant, others were made redundant. Fundraising was essential, as was increasing class sizes. These were “some of the most gruelling meetings and decisions the school has ever made” – and the defendant was present throughout."

Children at the school had less support and Mr Jackson was angry and upset that a number of children could have benefitted from more one-to-one work, had the budget allowed and that these decisions could have made a difference to their final outcomes.

He added: “Staff have been constantly worried about the future, and the security of their jobs.

"They are amazing and have shouldered many additional burdens. It is “truly awful” that someone with such “callous intentions” should have been sitting in their midst.

"Her actions have “tarnished all of us”.

Passing sentence, Judge Nicholas Barker told Smithson she had used the cash she stole to pay for "extravagances".

He told her: "This is, Ghislain Smithson, a significant amount of money. But it is not simply the amount. That is not the whole story.

"It is the context of this which makes it so serious. It is the context of the money being stolen from the school by you in a position of trust which makes the dishonesty so wicked.

"You knew that each pound you stole and removed were funds which would otherwise be directed towards the education of the children who were passing through that school; children you will have seen on a daily basis coming in and out of the school to be taught."

The judge added that the defendant's thefts had left a real impact on the school.

After the sentencing, Detective Constable James Graham, of the west Cumbria crime command department, said: “Smithson occupied a position of trust – but she abused this to steal a significant amount of money from the school.

“The vigilance of the school uncovered this.

“We worked closely with the school during this investigation and financial inquiries were able to piece together what had happened.”