Academy rapped over consultancy payments to chair of trustees

A special school that paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to consultants, including one who served as its chair of trustees and chief finance officer, has been criticised by education funding chiefs.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency has published a report on its financial management and governance review of Woodfield School, a special school in Brent which became a standalone academy in April 2014.

The school, rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, was found to have breached academy funding rules through a  lack of transparency, conflicts of interests, breaches of procurement requirements and by failing to ensure work by related parties was carried out at-cost.

The trust needs to take urgent action to resolve the issues, including greater consideration given to the robustness of financial management and governance arrangements by the board

The review was undertaken by the ESFA in June last year, after it received allegations in relation to £240,000 paid to a consultant who carried out a number of other roles at the trust.

The investigation revealed Woodfield School – a single-academy trust – appointed two separate consultancy companies to cover various finance and HR tasks at a cost of over £400,000.

It has so far paid £311,500 to one of the consultancy companies, employed since 2013-14, although this includes reimbursing another school – Preston Manor School – for the time of its employees.

The second, which it has worked with since 2014-15, has received £92,610. The names of both companies are redacted from the report.

One of the consultants served as the school’s chair of trustees from June 2015 until October 2017, during which time any transactions with his company should have been considered a related party transaction.

However, no related party transactions were reported in the trust’s 2016-17 accounts, and the services “were not provided at cost”.

Following his resignation as chair on October 2 2017, the consultant attended a further three board meetings as an observer, but his interest was not declared.

The same individual also served as the trust’s chief finance officer from December 2015 until June 2018, working off-payroll. The ESFA ruled that he should have been on the payroll, and that in not ensuring that he was, the trust “has not ensured that their senior employee’s payroll arrangements fully meet their tax obligations”.

While undertaking his role as chief finance officer, he was also a member of the trust’s resources committee, which worked as an audit committee to scrutinise financial decisions.

The ESFA also found there were no written contracts in place for the services provided by either of the consultants, and multiple missing purchase orders in invoices.

There is “no evidence that the trust followed a proper procurement process”, and the former headteacher had simply “made a direct appointment and informed the board after the assignment had started”, the ESFA said.

It was also “not clear” if there was any duplication or overlap between the two consultants, and said the information available “does not verify what exactly the trust has paid for”.

The trust was also criticised for failing to regularly update its register of interests.

“The trust needs to take urgent action to resolve the issues, including greater consideration given to the robustness of financial management and governance arrangements by the board,” the report concluded.

Woodfield School was approached for comment.