Relentless Focus on Good Governance in Academies Continues

Good Governance in Academies is Key Focus for DfE

Over the Summer the Department for Education quietly published some documents which show the focus on good governance in academies remains a key priority. The first document was the widely expected new edition of the Academies Financial Handbook which applies from 1 September. Secondly, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (the new name for the EFA) published three financial management and governance reviews into multi academy trusts. These highlight case studies of where things can go wrong. In case you missed them, here we summarise the key points to be aware of.

Academies Financial Handbook

It is a requirement of all Academy Trusts’ Funding Agreements that the Academies Financial Handbook (’AFH’) is complied with, in particular the list of ‘must haves’ in Annex C. The new AFH applies as from 1 September 2017. The main changes in this new edition concern governance and financial control.

Governance

  • There is an emphasis on greater clarity about the roles of members, trustees and salaried employees

There must be clear separation between the roles of member, trustees and executive (paid) managers. For example, employees of the Trust must not be appointed as members, unless permitted by the Articles of Association. The current model articles do not allow members to be employees, but some older versions do. Trusts with older articles may wish to consider revising their articles to reflect best practice.

In addition, the DfE’s preference is that no other employees, other than the Senior Executive Leader, should serve as a trustee. This helps to ensure there are clear lines of accountability through the Senior Executive Leader. Older Articles may talk about no more than one third of trustees being employees. Again, Trusts may wish to adopt this change in line with best practice.

  • Trusts are reminded that the overarching seven Nolan principles of public life apply to everyone holding office in an Academy trust (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership).
  • Annual letters to Trusts’ Accounting Officers/CEOs from the ESFA’s accounting officer must be discussed by the Board and appropriate action taken

The ESFA sends letters to Trusts’ Accounting Officers/CEOs from time to time which cover issues pertinent to their role and ESFA reviews. The letter must now be shared with members, trustees, Chief Financial Officer and other members of the senior leadership team. It must be discussed by the Board of trustees.  This discussion should be clearly documented in the Trust board minutes. All “Dear Accounting Officer” letters can be found on the DfE website here.

  • Improving efficiency and value for money in academy trusts

Where the ESFA have concerns about a Trust’s financial management, but not enough to issue a Financial Notice to Improve (FNtI), they may require the Trust to work with an expert in school financial health and efficiency to support the Trust and identify where improvements can be made. They may also prescribe this as a condition of a FNtI.

  • There is an emphasis on the importance of addressing skills gaps on the Board at key transition points such as growth periods. Trusts are recommended to use the DfE’s competency framework for governance to determine skills gaps in the Board (see more here)
  • Trusts should consider the key features of effective governance in the DfE’s Governance Handbook when assessing their effectiveness

Boards should be looking to implement these as part of their annual assessment of their effectiveness and skill-set, as well as minuting these discussions.

  • Edubase must be kept up to date with details of changes to Trustees and members within 14 days

Recent ESFA reports have highlighted that some Trusts are not keeping their records up to date of who are members and trustees promptly following either appointments or resignations. This applies to both Edubase and Companies House records. Someone should be given specific responsibility to complete this task, usually the Company Secretary.

  • Appointment of auditors must be approved by the members, not just the trustees

The Board of trustees may believe they are responsible for the appointment of auditors. However, this is only the case where the Companies Act permits trustees to appoint them e.g. in the Trust’s first accounting period. Thereafter the members must approve the appointment, usually at an AGM.

Financial Control

  • a new section on executive pay states that Boards must ensure their decisions on levels of pay follow a robust evidence-based process and reflect the roles and responsibilities of individuals

The decisions should be backed up with supporting evidence and secure records kept–such as confidential appendices to minutes.

  • Repercussive transactions’ as well as ‘novel or contentious transactions’ now require ESFA approval

Repercussive transactions are those which are likely to cause pressure on other trusts to take a similar approach and hence have wider financial implications for the academies sector.

  • Clarification that the non-statutory/non-contractual element of a severance payment limit of £50,000 is based on the gross amount before any deductions for tax etc.

This is a welcome technical clarification. The full new Handbook can be viewed here.

Financial Management and Governance Reviews

The ESFA can initiate a Financial Management and Governance review at an academy trust following a complaint, or on its own initiative, either at random or as part of its new routine assurance activities. There have been 25 such reviews conducted since 2013. The typical remit of a review is:

  • to assess the financial controls and management in a Trust to see if they are compliant with the AFH and Funding Agreement
  • to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of governance, risk management and internal controls
  • to assess propriety, regularity and value for money

The ESFA’s policy is to publish their findings to inform public debate and scrutiny. The academy trust is usually given 5 working days to comment on the report before it is published. Three such reports were published over the Summer.

The first review concerns the DRB Ignite MAT. The review was instigated following a complaint about a leasing arrangement for whiteboards at one of their schools. However, the remit soon expanded to cover scrutiny of wider governance arrangements in the MAT.  The key findings of the review were:

  • There was a lack of separation of the roles of members, trustees and executive managers. The Accounting officer was a member as well as being a director. The Accounting Officer was not on the Trust’s payroll and the role had rotated among the directors three times. There was no written agreement in place setting out the role and responsibilities of the Accounting officer – in breach of the Academies Financial Handbook. The AFH requires that the role be allocated to a Single Executive Leader, who is accountable for the use of public money. The CFO role was contracted out to another group company and the Trust board did not have any independent directors with accountancy experience or qualifications. This created a risk of inadequate oversight and challenge. The named member of the trust was a company which had since become dormant, thereby breaching the Articles of Association.
  • The trust was using related commercial companies and connected parties to provide 83% of its central functions and expenditure without following a proper procurement process. Remember that delivery of services by related parties can only be ‘at cost’ (see below) and a contract for services or goods may need to advertised and comply with EU procurement rules if over a threshold of £164,176 (unless it can be argued that by their nature the services fall under the Light Touch Regime in which case a higher threshold of £589,148 may apply). The ESFA was not satisfied that adequate procedures were in place to manage conflicts of interest between the Trust and connected companies. The same people sat on the Trust board and the boards of group companies providing the services. Directors were approving invoices from their own group companies for payment. This was potentially a breach of Companies Act duties and charity law, as well as the AFH.
  • The award of a contract for smartboards at one of the trust’s primary schools to a group company did not follow best practice and could not demonstrate value for money
  • The trust had failed to keep EduBase updated with details of members and trustees within 14 days.
  • There was no central of register of contracts, making it difficult to coordinate the re-tendering to drive value for money
  • There was a failure to publish details of business and pecuniary interests of trustees on the website and failure to keep adequate minutes of trustee meetings.

The Trust was ordered to undertake a review of its governance arrangements and carry out urgent corrective actions.

The second review was published on 28 June and concerned the Rodillian MAT. The investigation was triggered by complaints about the Accounting Officer staying at a luxury hotel several nights a week, despite living within travelling distance of the schools. The review quickly broadened in scope and found other issues which are documented in the ESFA report:

  • The Accounting Officer had been reimbursed for hotel accommodation – although there was no policy on approved subsistence and travel in place to measure the reasonableness of this and no evidence of Board approval for the expenditure
  • The trust had rented a flat for the Accounting Officer – although the benefit was not documented – this should have been regarded as a novel or contentious payment and ‘ex gratia’ benefit for which ESFA approval was required
  • The Trust had awarded a contract worth £1.45m for alternative education for students excluded from mainstream provision without following a competitive tendering procedure. Although the contract was for 5 years, the liability in the accounts was only shown as a 3 year commitment.
  • The Trust did not have an up to date financial procedures manual in place
  • There were no proper procedures for authorising payments to suppliers
  • The Trust had entered into supposed ‘operating leases’ of smart boards which were in fact ‘finance leases’ (which require prior approval from ESFA).
  • The Trust Chair was paid for consultancy services – as the Chair was also a member this is not allowed and would have required prior consent from the Charity Commission.

The third review concerned Enquire Learning Trust. According to the report, similar themes came to light:

  • Senior managers were employed ‘off payroll’ through limited companies
  • There was lack of skills and oversight of managers by the Trust Board
  • The role and responsibilities of the Accounting Officer were not documented in a contract
  • The financial reports presented to the board were inadequate and did not give trustees a picture of the overall consolidated financial position of the trust. There was no 3-5 year consolidated forecast.
  • Two significant related party transactions in 2015/16 were not disclosed
  • Financial controls over purchasing, including the use of corporate credit cards were inadequate. The lack of segregation of duties and independent oversight of purchasing and payment arrangements increased the risk of inappropriate expenditure.
  • Trust officers had claimed irregular payments for valuations of trust premises in connection with a scheme to transfer the Trust premises into their personal pension funds and lease it back to the Trust
  • There was no central asset register to keep track of valuable items such as laptops issued to staff
  • There was no audit committee or independent Responsible Officer to carry out assurance checks

Lessons to be learned

A complaint can be triggered by a disgruntled employee or governor – once the process starts it can be very resource intensive to manage and the scope of the inquiry can quickly widen.

  • Understanding the separation of roles between members, trustees and executive managers is absolutely critical. A clear Scheme of Delegation, Code of Conduct, policies and procedures are your first line of defence in demonstrating compliance. Be clear about who your members are and keep the register up to date so it is clear who actually holds the voting rights. Make sure they are involved in relevant key decisions and due process is followed.
  • Remember the ‘at cost’ requirement if awarding contracts to a ‘connected party’. An individual or company can supply good and/or services up to £2,500, cumulatively, in any financial year which can include profit; however, beyond £2,500, all transactions must be ‘at cost’ without profit. Where ‘at cost’ is triggered, a statement of assurance is required from the supplier to support the arrangement, which the Accounting Officer must review to ensure that there are no issues with the transaction. ‘Connected parties’ include members, trustees, sponsors (as well as their family members and business associates).
  • Develop a set of Standing Orders and Financial Regulations which set out the requirements for obtaining competitive quotes, authorisations for expenditure, delegated limits and the limited circumstances in which this can be waived. Remember that contracts with a value in excess of £164,176 may be subject to EU competitive tendering rules.
  • Be very careful about awarding contracts to ‘connected parties’. These will almost always be spotted during the external audit and will be flagged up in your annual accounts attracting further scrutiny. The Articles of Association will usually set out the process which must be followed to properly authorise such a transaction – any trustees with an interest in the contract must declare this and must withdraw from the meeting.
  • Develop a set of policies on subsistence and accommodation expenses, gifts and hospitality so that everyone knows where the boundaries are.
  • “Off payroll arrangements” – whilst there may be the odd time such arrangement is appropriate, for standard roles payments should be on-payroll, which also helps ensure that the individual is meeting their tax obligations.
  • Make sure that novel and contentious issues go to the Board for discussion and that decisions and the justification for them are properly minuted.
  • Understand the difference between finance leases and operating leases . Under an operating lease all risks and rewards related to asset ownership remain with the lessor for the leased asset. In this type of lease, the asset is returned by the lessee after using it for lease term agreed upon. The ownership of the asset remains with the lessor. However, under a finance lease the risks and rewards related to ownership of asset leased are transferred to the lessee. The lessee usually has an option to acquire ownership at the end of the lease by making a further payment. In accounting terms, this is usually treated like a loan.
  • If these Trusts had had an effective Audit Committee providing oversight and challenge, these situations could probably have been avoided. As one review commented: “Audit Committee functions should be established in such a way as to achieve internal scrutiny that delivers objective and independent assurance. Where the Responsible Officer function is provided by [a group company] it cannot be shown to be independent and hence is in breach of the Academies Financial Handbook”. See more on the role of an Audit Committee.
  • It is always good practice to take a step back before entering into any unusual transactions and consider the wider implications. Could this transaction attract adverse media coverage? Is it outside our normal business activity? If we enter into the transaction and another academy trust hears of this, will it impact upon the wider sector? Whilst this  comes down to judgement and perception, it may be safest to consult with ESFA before performing the transaction rather than being criticised later for making the wrong decision.
  • Consider undertaking a governance review facilitated by an external provider to check your house is in order and that you are following best practice. We offer a fixed price service GovernanceCHECK360.

 


Mark Johnson is an independent solicitor and chartered company secretary helping academy trusts, schools, colleges and not for profits to stay compliant, manage risks and plan for success. Contact us today for a no-obligation chat or check out our website at elderflowerlegal.co.uk or call 01625 260577.  Find out for more details of our service packages here.
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Public Law Pitfalls for Academies – Part II

Inadequate Consultation & Other Public Law Pitfalls for Academies

In Part 1 of this post I outlined the public law pitfalls for academies when they exercise their public functions. One of the ways in which academy trusts can ensure they comply is to conduct a fair consultation process before taking major decisions with a public character..

 The crucial importance of consultation

The duty to consult before taking major decisions may be expressly required by specific legislation, such as section 5 of the Academies Act 2010 (where a school is proposing to convert), or Section 10 (where a free school is being proposed), or it may be implied as a matter of good administrative practice. Either way, the decision-maker will expose itself to risk of a claim for a flawed consultation process if it doesn’t follow the correct procedures.  As well as being a legal duty in itself, in some circumstances, the running of a consultation exercise may be seen as a way to improve transparency and enhance the quality of decision-making. Although it may be an administrative burden with some expense involved, it may help to fend off other types of challenges later because it will elicit information and relevant facts that the decision-maker needs to be aware of before proceeding, and will help to show that the decision maker made proper enquiries (for example, around the equalities impact of any proposals, such as the effects on ethnic minorities or disabled persons).

The sort of contentious proposals on which a consultation might be required include choosing or changing a sponsor, joining or leaving a Multi Academy Trust, changing admissions arrangements, changes to SEN provision, or opening a Sixth Form.

Golden rules for a fair and bullet-proof consultation

To avoid the risk of challenge to the consultation exercise itself, or to the subsequent decision which is based on it, the consultation must always be carried out fairly. What is fair will depend on the particular circumstances and the nature of the proposals under consideration. It will always be sensible for decision-makers to take more care if the proposals are likely to be very controversial. If the statute or Government guidance lays down specific requirements for the consultation, then these must be adhered to, but otherwise there will be a broad discretion to design the process as they see fit. The Courts have laid down the following key principles known as the Gunning principles

[1] (named after the claimant in that case), which must always be followed:

  • Consultation must take place when the proposal is still at a formative stage – the decision-maker cannot consult on a decision that has already been made – otherwise the outcome will have been pre-determined. The wording of section 5 of the Academies Act (the duty to consult before creating an academy) gave rise to controversy when anti-academy campaigners sought to argue that a consultation conducted by a Governing Body once the they had already applied to the Secretary of State for an academy order had effectively been pre-determined. Fortunately, the section makes clear that consultation can take place “before or after an Academy order, or an application for an Academy order”. However, the application for an academy order (which is a pre-condition to obtaining the £25k grant funding for set up costs) requires the school to confirm that the Governing Body has passed a resolution in favour of conversion – passing such a resolution before consultation has taken place could be problematic! The resolution may have to be carefully worded to state simply that the Governing Body has resolved to ‘explore the possibility of moving to academy status’. Controversially, the new Education and Adoption Act has removed the requirement to consult when the Secretary of State decides to make an order in relation to an ‘inadequate’ or ‘coasting’ school[2]. Careful choice of words in public meetings and written communications can also be very important. If the trust board is minded to pursue a particular option, it should take care to say that and talk in terms of what might happen if the decision goes ahead, and not give the impression that the issue is a fait accompli. If there is really only one viable option, the trust can state this and provide reasons as to why this is the case.
  • Sufficient reasons must be put forward for the proposal to allow for intelligent consideration and response. Consultees need to be made aware of the basis on which a proposal for consultation has been put forward. They need to be aware of the criteria which will be used in considering the proposals, and what factors will be considered decisive. Equally, the information in the consultation document must not be inaccurate or misleading so as to mislead consultees. It is particularly important when dealing with complex issues to provide access to sufficient background information to educate and inform consultees. The document should set out what is proposed, what the options are and why these changes are needed. In the case of new academy proposals, it would be prudent to provide information about the background to academies, their supposed benefits and governance arrangements, the extra money and resources which might be available, the extra risks and responsibilities involved, the impact on teachers, pupils and other staff, impact on other schools. Be upfront about the reasons for a proposal – in the current climate the driver for change will often be mainly financial – if that is the case say so – don’t be tempted to hide behind other more superficially palatable reasons, because that may risk the exercise being struck down as unlawful.
  • Adequate time must be given for consideration and response. Sometimes the statute may prescribe the time period, otherwise it may be left to the decision maker. If the decision maker has already adopted a documented policy on time periods, it will be expected to adhere to it, unless there are good reasons to depart from it. In the context of schools, a minimum of six weeks would be a reasonable time period, however at least some of the period should be during term time when parents, pupils and staff are on site. DfE Guidance on making significant changes to an existing academy trust[3] recommends a period of four weeks and the Admissions Code requires a minimum of six weeks for changes to admission arrangements. If the decision needs to be taken urgently, the Courts may be tolerant of a shorter time period – though less so if the circumstances are of the academy’s own making.
  • The product of the consultation must be conscientiously taken into account. If the decision maker does not properly consider the responses, then it can be accused of having already made up its mind or having failed to take into account a relevant consideration. The decision maker does not have to personally take into account every response – it can rely on a summary produced by officers, as long as it is comprehensive and accurate. It is important make sure there is a paper-trail showing that this was the case.

Who should be consulted?

A key question is to identify the audience of persons who should be consulted. The safest option would be to cast the net wide and, depending on the nature of the proposal, consult with parents, pupils, staff, other affected schools, (e.g. feeder primary schools), nurseries or children’s centres on site, any diocesan or religious authority for the school, FE colleges, local community, local Admissions Forum, representatives of key stakeholders such as the local authority, the EFA, Regional Schools Commissioners, authorised representatives of trade unions and professional bodies. The consultation document should set out the background to the proposals and ask a series of questions and invite consultees to make any other observations they may wish to include. The information should be readily available – post it on websites and make hard copies available to pick up at the school. Consider issuing press releases to local papers. Meetings should be held for parents, pupils and staff and questions recorded and published as part of FAQs document on the website for those that could not attend. Useful guidance about the conduct of public consultations has been published by the Cabinet Office.

What if the proposal changes?

Is the decision-maker required to re-consult if it wants to adjust its original proposals or if circumstances have changed since the consultation began? The Courts have taken the view that fresh consultation is only required where there is a “fundamental difference between the proposals consulted on and those which the consulting party subsequently wishes to adopt”[4]. A particular example of this might be if the site for a new or expanded school has not yet been identified at the time consultation takes place. The consultation can proceed with new information about site information being provided as it becomes available – although obviously it may then be necessary to extend the time for responses on that aspect.

Whilst there are as yet no reported cases of judicial review of governing bodies in respect of academy proposals (as opposed to admissions or SEN issues), solicitors’ letters threatening litigation and the attendant costs seems to have been enough to delay conversions at Tyndale School in Islington, where the objectors alleged that the governing body failed to carry out an assessment of the impact changing to academy status would have on the wider community, especially in terms of equalities – how it would affect people of different religions, gender and disabilities. A similar threat of proceedings against the governing body based on flawed consultation and inaccurate information being presented to parents also delayed conversion at Tidemill School in Deptford.  It is also noteworthy that the governing body’s failure to consult properly can later be used as grounds to attack the Secretary of State’s decision to approve academy arrangements (even though it is not actually her obligation). This was accepted by the Court in proceedings to challenge the academisation of Downhills School in Haringey[5] (although the challenge ultimately failed on the basis that the local authority had consistently failed to raise standards and there was a pressing need to intervene, the judge accepted an argument that, if a credible alternative strategy had been put forward by parents to improve the school whilst remaining under local authority control, the decision maker would have been obliged to consider it).

Final thoughts

The complex patchwork of legal rules and duties applying to academy trusts is derived from many sources – including education law, company law and charity law. Given the hybrid nature of academy trusts and their special status as private corporations delivering publicly funded services, amid the multiple layers of regulation, it easy for trustees and governors to overlook the public law pitfalls for academies, the most important of which is arguably the duty to properly consult before taking major decisions which affect the school and wider community. As wholesale academisation gathers momentum, we may see more use being made of public law challenges to check and hold to account the decision-making of academy trusts.


[1] R v Brent London Borough Council, ex parte Gunning, (1985) 84 LGR 168

[2] Section 8 of the Education and Adoption Act 2016

[3] Making Significant Changes to an Open Academy,  DfE 1 March 2016

[4] Silber J in R (Smith) v East Kent Hospital  NHS Trust 2002 EWHC 2640 45ff

[5] R (Moyse) v Secretary of State for Education  [2012] EWHC 2758 (Admin)


Mark Johnson is a highly experienced independent solicitor & chartered company secretary helping schools and academies with conversions, creation of MATs, legal and governance issues. We can help your academy to flourish. Find out more at elderflowerlegal.co.uk.

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Public Law Pitfalls for Academies

Inadequate Consultation & Other Public Law Pitfalls for Academies

Despite the rhetoric about autonomy, independence from state control and privatisation, academy trusts are still treated as quasi-public bodies for some purposes in the eyes of the law. Consequently, they are subject to various public law duties in the way they carry out their public functions. Unlike their specific duties derived from legislation such as the Academies Act 2010, Charities Act 2011 or Companies Act 2006, many of these duties are not written down in black and white. Instead, they are derived from principles of administrative law developed by the Courts over many decades. This lack of clarity means it can be difficult for trustees and governors to understand precisely what the law requires in this area. This is a developing area of the law in the context of academy trusts, particularly as the prospect of more enforced academisation polarises views and seems likely to encourage more protest and challenge to the activities of academy trusts. It is important that trustees and governors understand what the public law pitfalls for academies are to avoid falling into the traps. In this series of posts I will be examining what these duties are and how to stay compliant.

What is public law?

Public law is a body of long-established rules and principles used to check and challenge the decisi