New academy handbook beefs-up rules on pay, whistleblowing and banning trustees

Ministers have toughened up the academies rulebook today with new guidance to make sure pay is reasonable, ensure trusts have adequate whistleblowing policies, and make clear that the government can ban misbehaving trustees.

Academy trusts will also now be required to submit an annual report to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) to show how they have checked that their internal systems are effective and compliant.

The 2019 Academies Financial Handbook, published today, includes extra guidance on the role governing bodies should play to make sure the pay and other benefits of senior staff are reasonable and reflect their responsibilities.

Schools Week has established a list of the highest paid academy chiefs, with 23 earning more than £200,000. Academies minister Lord Agnew has declared war on bulging chief executive pay packets and has written to 213 academy trusts in the last 18 months calling on them to justify excessive salaries.

Extra detail has also been added regarding executive pay so it now includes commercial interests. Trusts were told to ensure the board was aware of the business interests of senior executives.

The new guidance highlights the need for trusts to maintain a risk register to ensure procedures and systems are adequately scrutinised.

Chief executives at multi-academy trusts were urged by education charity Ambition School Leadership last year to pause and make changes as they develop, or risk undermining their ability to improve schools sustainably, according to new research.

The latest government handbook has bolstered its advice on whistleblowing procedures, including a structure that protects and supports staff so they can report concerns in confidence. Whereas last year’s handbook had just five lines dedicated to whistleblowing, this year’s guidance includes significantly more detail.

Trusts have been told to ensure that all staff  are aware of the process, know what protection is available to them and know who to approach if they have concerns. Trusts were also told to ensure all concerns raised with them are responded to “properly and fairly”.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Andrew Morrish, the chief executive of the Victoria Academies Trust, threatened to uncover and “deal with” a whistleblower at a failing primary school after a letter was sent to Ofsted raising issues about safeguarding, trust expenditure and treatment of staff.

Trusts are also now required to publish financial notices on their websites within 14 days of the notice being issued. They must keep it on the website until the notice is lifted by ESFA.

The handbook also outlines the role of trustees and emphasises the importance of robust governance.

Agnew has led the government’s efforts to get more professionals to serve on school boards. In March he urged leading city business professionals to become school governors and trustees, with ministers believing schools will benefit from more “highly-skilled” governors.

The handbook also provides guidance on the powers the secretary of state holds in tackling cases of mismanagement, including removing trustees from a trust – something that some sector leaders have been urging the DfE to use more.

Agnew said: “It is important that we hold academy trusts to account to ensure that every single academy offers the best education possible and spends public money reasonably.

“To do that, trusts must have strong financial management and governance structures – so they can help young people across the country to raise their aspirations by offering an improved education – and this handbook will help trusts to deliver it.”