The Hallmarks of Good Governance in Academy Trusts – Part 3

This series of posts examines what good governance in academy trusts looks like and how boards can create a framework to deliver their core purpose and properly discharge their duties. In Part 2, we examined the framework of governance in academy trusts. In this Part 3, we examine….

Stewardship of finance and resources

The academy trust board is responsible for the proper stewardship of trust funds, including regularity and propriety, and for ensuring economy, efficiency and effectiveness in their use. The Financial Handbook states “The board of trustees has wide discretion over its use of the trust’s funds, which it must discharge reasonably and in a way that commands broad public support”. This is hinting at the reputational risk of expenditure which could be perceived as inappropriate.

Further, the governing body has a responsibility, under the Academies Financial Handbook, to appoint an Accounting Officer, normally the headteacher or CEO, who has specific responsibilities for financial matters. This role includes a personal responsibility to Parliament, and to the Secretary of State, for the financial resources under the trust’s control.

The Accounting Officer must take personal responsibility (which must not be delegated) for assuring the board that there is compliance with the Financial Handbook and the Funding Agreement. The Accounting Officer must advise the board in writing if, at any time, in his or her opinion, any action or policy under consideration by them is incompatible with the terms of the Articles, Funding Agreement or the Financial Handbook.

Trustees have a number of legal duties that must be met in relation to accounting and financial reporting. These include:

  • keeping ‘sufficient’ accounting records to explain all transactions and show the trust’s financial position
  • preparing an annual report and statutory accounts meeting legal requirements, including the EFA’s Accounts Direction (updated annually) and the Statement of Recommended Practice (SoRP) for charity accounts.
  • considering the need for a reserves policy, managing the level of reserves held and the disclosure of any reserves policy in the Trustees’ Annual Report
  • formally approving the Trustees’ Annual Report and accounts at a minuted board meeting
  • ensuring that accounts are subjected to an external audit
  • ensuring that the Trustees’ Annual Report, accounts and annual return are filed on time with the EFA and Companies House.

Financial information should be provided at each trustee meeting which include details of the academy trust’s financial position and performance. The financial information should be sent to each trustee before each meeting and will typically include:

  • the latest management accounts
  • a comparison of budget to actual figures
  • an explanation for variances between forecasts and what actually happened
  • details of cash flow and closing bank balances

The meeting should set aside a specific time within the agenda for discuss of financial matters and allow the trustees to raise any issues of concern.

Systems of internal control

The Funding Agreement contains a range of obligations in relation to accounting and financial records. There is a general obligation to comply with the requirements of the Financial Handbook published from time to time.

The trust’s internal control framework must include arrangements for:

  • co-ordinating the planning and budgeting processes
  • applying discipline in financial management, including managing banking, debt and cash flow, with appropriate segregation of duties
  • preparation of monthly budget monitoring reports
  • ensuring that delegated financial authorities are respected
  • effective planning and oversight of any capital projects
  • the management and oversight of assets
  • the propriety and regularity of financial transactions
  • reducing the risk of fraud and theft
  • ensuring efficiency and value for money in the organisation’s activities
  • a process for independent checking of financial controls, systems, transactions and risks

Executive management and the trust’s staff are responsible for ensuring that the controls put in place by the trustees are implemented. There should be a culture of control embedded in the operations of the organisation; this culture is created by the trustees and senior management, who should lead by example in adhering to the trust’s internal financial controls and good practice.

All academy trusts are now required to include a statement about their governance arrangements in their annual report and accounts and to publish details on their website. New trusts are also required to complete an EFA online financial management and governance self-assessment within 4 months of opening. This includes questions such as:

  1. Has a named individual been designated as the accounting officer and does this person fully understand the duties and responsibilities of the role?
  2. Does the accounting officer, under the guidance of the board, ensure appropriate oversight of financial transactions by having all the trust’s property under the control of the trustees, measures in place to prevent losses or misuse; having bank accounts, financial systems and financial records operated by more than one person; keeping and maintaining full and accurate accounting records; and preparing accruals accounts, giving a true and fair view of the trust’s use of resources, in accordance with existing accounting standards?
  3. Do the board and appropriate committees meet at least three times per year and conduct business only when meetings are quorate?
  4. Does the board receive and consider information about the financial performance of the trust at least three times a year?
  5. Has a chief financial officer, with appropriate qualifications and/or experience, been appointed by the board?
  6. Has the board approved a written scheme of delegation of financial powers that maintains robust internal control arrangements?
  7. Has the board approved a balanced budget for the financial year and has the approval been minuted?
  8. Has the board been made aware of the requirement to obtain approval from EFA where it is considering borrowing funds or entering into liabilities such as leases or tenancies beyond delegated limits?
  9. Has an appropriate internal control framework been established?
  10. Has a contingency and business continuity plan been prepared?
  11. Have the risks arising from your operations been assessed?
  12. Has adequate insurance cover been obtained?
  13. Has the board been informed of the requirement to obtain approval from EFA before making any novel or contentious payments?
  14. Have all trustees completed the register of business and outside interests?
  15. Has the academy trust published on its website the relevant business and pecuniary interests of trustees and members?
  16. Are there measures in place to manage any conflicts of interest?
  17. Has the board approved a competitive tendering policy?
  18. Do senior officers’ payroll arrangements meet tax obligations fully?
  19. Has the board been informed that goods or services provided by individuals or organisations connected to the trust must be provided at ‘no more than cost’, on the basis of an open book agreement and supported by statements of assurance, in accordance with the conditions set out in the Handbook?
  20. Has a set of accounting policies been approved?
  21. Has an external auditor been appointed?
  22. Has an audit committee or a committee that fulfils the functions of an audit committee been established?
  23. Has a process for independent checking of financial controls been implemented?
  24. Has an appropriate committee agreed a programme to address the risks to financial control?
  25. Has the board been informed of the requirement to report to EFA any instances of fraud or theft: above £5,000 against the trust whether by employees, trustees or third parties; or where fraud is unusual or systematic in nature? Full details must be provided in the commentary section where any such fraud or theft has occurred.

EFA Chief Executive Peter Lauener set out further key questions which accounting officers and trustees must be able to answer on an ongoing basis in a letter dated June 2013:

  • Are you confident you are procuring all goods and services in an open and transparent way?
  • Are you ensuring that your cashflow reflects the activity at the trust and that it is properly reconciled at least monthly?
  • Do you have robust controls for payroll arrangements – particularly important in a multi-academy trust – including checks that any amounts paid out are the right amounts and paid to bona fide employees?
  • Do you have appropriate segregation of responsibility in your finance section (i.e. cross-checks and approvals)? And are you providing proper management support to your finance staff to operate in a role where they are well-placed to provide you with a “first line of defence” in terms up upholding propriety, regularity and value for money in the use of public funds?
  • Are you making sure conflicts of interest are avoided and that you are keeping registers of interest up to date?
  • Are you confident senior staff and trustees are not gaining any private or personal commercial or financial benefit as a result of their position, other of course than under their contract of employment?
  • Are you sure that your academy trust is not being exploited for personal/private benefit and that any fees for consultancy work are where appropriate being properly accrued to the academy trust rather than to individuals?
  • Do you have robust procedures for the recording, documenting, evidencing and monitoring of information and especially the reasons for entering into major spending commitments?
  • Do you have properly constituted arrangements for internal audit to give you and trustees a further safeguard that everything is in order?

Combating Fraud

To reduce the risk of fraud, academy trusts are recommended to consider the following actions:

  • ensure anti-fraud and whistleblowing policies are in place and regularly update these and communicate them to staff
  • conduct regular anti-fraud awareness training events for finance staff
  • highlight to staff that they can also contact theEFA with any concerns of possible irregularity or fraud (the EFA publishes financial management and governance reviews on its website)
  • management communications to pursue identified incidents of fraud
  • ensure financial controls are regularly assessed and are well designed and implemented
  • ensure that there is appropriate segregation of duties in your controls
  • review your processes for references and background checks on new employees
  • scrutinise significant business transactions and personal relationships to avoid possible conflicts of interest
  • install a physical security system to protect the trust’s assets

The most common abuses identified by auditors were set out in a National Audit Office report of 2015:

  • misuse of funds by headteachers using academy funds for personal gain
  • inappropriate expense claims for both staff and trustees and unjustified salary increases
  • transactions in breach of the Academies Financial Handbook and not in line with Parliamentary intentions
  • poor oversight of activities of individual schools in a group, or weak controls at the trust level
  • weaknesses in procurement (that is, non-compliance with EU procurement rules, and employment or contracting with related parties, or both)
  • Related-party transactions (that is, whether they have been entered into on an arms-length basis and are in line with the new ‘at cost’ requirement.

The EFA publishes regular reports of investigations it has carried out into financial mismanagement and governance issues on its website.

Next time – How to get your governance right from the outset.

Mark Johnson is a highly experienced independent solicitor & chartered secretary supporting academy trusts, free schools & other education providers with their governance arrangements, legal and compliance matters. He is an independent member of a MAT audit committee. He offers a cost-effective governance review GovernanceCHECK360™ for academy trusts

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