Stratton Upper School issued with improvement notice over the state of its finances

MBCH  Stratton Upper School PNL-140318-172447001
MBCH Stratton Upper School PNL-140318-172447001

An investigation into the finance and governance of a Biggleswade school have revealed a catalogue of errors.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) went into Stratton Upper School after a whistleblower raised concerns about financial management and governance arrangements in May this year.

And last week, after issuing a Financial Notice to Improve, the ESFA set out a list of issues, including severence pay and a lack of transparency.

One issue highlighted was over £20,000 spent over a failed recruitment exercise for a Director of Transformation.

A headhunting agency was appointed, which had been used by one of the school’s trustees in the past rather than by public tender.

A candidate was interviewed and offered the post but turned it down.

The report states: “The Trust subsequently began another recruitment exercise for a senior finance post. Following an advert in the press two people were interviewed. One person was offered the post and was appointed from 13 November 2017 only to give notice of resignation in a letter dated 10 January 2018.”

The senior finance post is now covered by an agency employee, which was not approved by the board. The Academies Financial Handbook (AFH), which the Stratton Education Trust, which governs the school has to adhere to, also states trusts must have a chief finance officer appointed by the board of trustees.

The build for a new science block also came in for criticism after the trust spent more than £280,000 on a company, appointed by recommendation rather than by public tender, to manage the tendering process for contractors.

There were also issues over mobile phone use, a lack of paperwork for petty cash and issues over charge cards.

The investigation also found the trust had not been transparent in reporting its governance structure, had not kept its website up to date, and its audit and risk committee minutes did not show a focus on providing assurances to the board of trustees that all risks had been identified and managed.

With regards to severance pay, a total of £66,306 should have been declared in the 2016/17 accounts. £96,306 was paid to a total of six staff made redundant in September 2017 but one person was underpaid by £991 and one overpaid by £10,237. The underpayment could not be explained but the overpayment was made as a result of negotiations.

“While the trust has informed us that the payment was made in the best interests of the trust, they have also confirmed that no legal advice was sought over the matter and that there is no business case to support the payment,” the report states.

The notice, from Mike Pettifer, Director of Academies and Maintatined Schools Directorate for the ESFA, states he was pleased to see the steps the Trust is now considering to strengthen accounting, financial management and internal financial controls.

But he added: “However, my concerns remain in relation to the weak financial position and financial management and governance at the Trust.”

The Trust has until January 31 2019 to develop an action plan.

Ofsted ruled the academy as ‘requires improvement in April this year.

Cllr Madelaine Russell, Trust chairman said: “These issues are historic and we have been in the process of addressing them for some months, with tangible results. There has been a root and branch overhaul of personnel at the highest level and new internal systems put in place.

“We have found the input from the ESFA to be of immense value and we are very grateful for the resources and consultancy they have provided. We continue to work tirelessly with the ESFA, whom we consider full partners in this endeavour, and we are confident that we are on the path to long-term financial stability.”