Academy trust rapped over boss' £23,000 ex-gratia fee

A government investigation has uncovered a swathe of financial and governance failings at a single academy trust – including “potential irregularity” over football tickets costing more than £4,000.

The investigation into Westfield Academy, a mixed secondary school with a sixth form in Hertfordshire, also found a former finance boss had been paid a £22,600 honorarium (a voluntary payment for doing work outside their role) that was in breach of pay policies.

The investigation, triggered by anonymous allegations received in August and September 2017, found issues including misuse of school funds and assets, non-compliance with procurement, abuse of position and lack of transparency surrounding financial information.

The school has a six-year contract with a football club – that wasn’t named in the investigation – which includes match day hospitality, two season tickets, and six tickets per match for a minimum of 19 games every season.

Investigators found the trust was unable to “fully account” for the use and whereabouts of the two season and six match day tickets for last year.

Tickets were put in a ballot for staff or pupils who had shown “exceptional performance and used as a reward”. But there was “no evidence” to track all the tickets, which the government stated was a breach of contract.

“Failure to have adequate controls in place to monitor the use of public assets can lead to an abuse of position and a misuse of public assets.”

The Education and Skills Funding Agency visited Westfield over seven days in October 2017 and found evidence that it was breaking the rules in both its financial management and governance arrangements.

The agency found that financial information was being withheld from the accounting officer and decisions were being taken without his input, while the chair of governors was said to be “taking on executive responsibilities”, including approving payments “without the appropriate authority”.

The trust had also purchased services from a relative of the chair of governors at a cost of £800 during 2015-16, but this had not been declared or included in the trust’s financial statements.

The ESFA also identified a potential safeguarding issue, where a contractor was found to be living in a “staff bungalow”, and the trust did not have evidence they had undergone the appropriate checks. Documentation for the individual was subsequently provided by the trust after the visit.

A governor was seen acting inappropriately towards a staff member during the investigation, and was also found to be attempting to bypass financial controls by asking for payments to be made to a contractor without approval from the chief financial officer (CFO), the report stated.

Meanwhile the then CFO was receiving an annual payment of around £22,600 honorarium payment. This had been approved by the chair but was in breach of the trust’s pay and appraisals policy, the report found.

The ESFA reported that the trust had paid for work experience with a contractor for an individual connected to a trustee, at a cost of around £1,700. The individual was not identified, but the information had not been disclosed on the trustee’s individual declarations or on the trust’s 2015-16 financial statements.

The trusts only had three members, short of Department for Education guidance for at least five, and all members were also trustees. The DfE suggests the “most robust” governance structures have “a significant degree of separation between the individuals who are members and those who are trustees”.

In 2016-17 the trust had paid around £42,000 for sports therapy, but problems were identified in the way the procurement process for the service had been carried out.

The ESFA has recommended an independent review of financial management and governance at the trust, which will lead to an action plan and timeline in which it must resolve all of the issues.

A financial notice to improve has also been issued, which includes a request for an the trust to carry out a “Integrated Curriculum and Financial Planning analysis exercise” by October 26 to find savings.

The notice will not be lifted until the trust has met all of the ESFA’s requirements.

The school, which has been approached for comment, was most recently visited by Ofsted in February 2016 and rated ‘good’.