Matrix Academy Trust ordered to review governance after ESFA investigation

The Matrix Academy Trust has been ordered to review its governance arrangements and financial management after a government review found it could not justify costly staff trips and had not ensured separation of powers between its members and directors.

The investigation was prompted by “anonymous allegations” made against it in October 2016, relating to “potentially inappropriate use of public funds and breaches of the academies financial handbook”.

The review, by the Education and Skills Funding Agency, concluded that while there were “no regularity issues” and the trust was in a “relatively healthy” financial position, there were some weaknesses in financial management and governance to be “urgently addressed”.

It found numerous, expensive development days for staff, which cost £17,205 in 2015 and £16,075 in 2016 – as well as £2,440 spent on a residential trip abroad for newly qualified teachers in 2016. What it did not find, though, was any “formal documentation” to show how this expenditure related to business activities.

The ESFA found trust members who were also directors, including the accounting officer, a set-up particularly frowned upon by officials.

The trust comprises three secondary academies, the Barr Beacon School, Etone College and Dame Elizabeth Cadbury School, and an all-through school, Bloxwich Academy.

The Barr School is rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, while Etone College is rated ‘good’. Bloxwich Academy was placed in special measures in July 2017. Dame Elizabeth Cadbury converted to an academy in 2016, but as a maintained school it was rated ‘good’ in 2012.

Some contracts of employment were missing from the trust’s records. At the same time, no member of central staff at the trust held a full accountancy qualification and the audit committee had just two members. Both were directors.

“Our work on site identified some weaknesses in financial management and governance, and that impact upon the adequacy of internal control and compliance with best-practice guidelines set out in the academies financial handbook,” the review said. “The findings have been raised and discussed with senior management at the trust, and the chair of the board of trustees.

“The trust has acknowledged that these issues need to be urgently addressed to ensure internal control arrangements within the trust are operating effectively and assure the safeguarding of public funds.”

The ESFA has requested a full independent review of the trust’s governance arrangements by December 1, which must cover the issues highlighted in its report.

“The commissioning process, terms of reference and scope for the review of governance should be agreed with the ESFA in advance,” it said, giving a deadline of October 16.

This should also be followed by the submission of an action plan explaining “how the required improvements will be managed and implemented”. All actions are to be completed by December 20.