Tuesday, October 29, 2013

More than invoices: the investigation report at the King’s Science Academy should raise more questions

The free schools programme was again in the news on Friday with the Newsnight report into the Kings Science Academy in Bradford. Likewise Saturday’s newspapers asked whether there had been a “cover-up” of the findings of an Education Funding Agency audit report (pdf of the report available here).

While most of the media coverage was about allegedly misclaimed funding (so-called “false invoices”) and the repayment of about £70,000 by the project to the Department for Education, the Education Funding Agency audit report was far more wide-ranging in its scrutiny of governance and financial management at the free school.

The report identified that business interests did not appear to be declared when they should have been:
  •  [redacted] (a Director) is the brother of the Principal, [redacted] ;
  •  [redacted] and [redacted], the former FD, have links with the company [redacted] , used by the Academy to engage [redacted];
  • [redacted] has a number of family members working for the Academy and a brother who is a member of the GB;
  • The links with the [redacted] – who leased the land and [redacted]  role as [redacted].

Maybe these connections were not evidence of cronyism. But transparency becomes especially vital when situations are complicated.

There were also significant blurring of roles. A former Chair was acting as a “benefactor/advisor” which had no legal standing and effectively duplicated the Chair’s role of overseeing governance. The Companies House entries for the company were out-of-date with year old changes in directorships not being shown.

In the fields of personnel and procurement, there appeared to be weaknesses.

The report goes beyond matters of compliance and procedure. More generally, it found that the directors were failing to perform key elements of their governance role:

The lack of understanding of responsibilities and the experience of running a school resulted in an acceptance of the way the GB was being run (e.g. no notice of meetings, lack of adequate minutes etc. already raised by the [redacted] review and the FMGE validation). In relation to the finance area in particular there was no challenge where the lack of expected reports such as management accounts and balance sheets was not being presented to the GB, which are important for understanding the Academy’s finances and for monitoring financial health.

These are serious failings. Let us hope that this was a unique failure of governance at an academy. Perhaps it isn’t.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Fraud in schools - some thoughts on the DfE's risk indicator checklist for academies

Allegations, fraud, corruption and bad behaviour have been in the news. A knighted Headteacher was convicted of false accounting and narrowly missed a custodial sentence for false accounting. A free school was being investigated after allegations of irregularities. Derby University was forced to strongly deny claims that it falsified official statistics on graduate employment.

The very structure and culture of colleges and universities, as well as the current constraints under which many…operate, can create conditions that facilitate fraud.

This makes it timely to look at the recently published guidance from the Department for Education (DfE ) on fraud. Last month the Education Funding Agency at the DfE issued Fraud Indicators: A checklist for academies (download here).

The Fraud Indicators checklist details “generic” indicators including “personal and organisational motives for fraud, possible weakness of internal controls, transactional indicators and possible methods of committing and concealing fraud”. The DfE suggest that the checklist “may be helpful for use as a checklist where concerns exists that fraudulent activity may be taking place”.

It would be easy to mock the section headed Personal Motives – many organisations would show a red flag on fraud indicators such as “personnel believe they receive inadequate compensation and/or rewards”, “disgruntled employee”, “recent failure associated with specific individual” and “personal animosity or professional jealousy”. Nevertheless these soap opera indicators do highlight that in the fraud triangle motivation and rationalisation sit with opportunity.

Under the heading of Organisational Motives, how many of us have known organisations “experiencing financial difficulty”, burdened by “under unusually tight time deadlines to achieve level of outputs” or having “suffered disappointment/reverses/consequences of bad decisions”.  Still the checklist is right to point to the problems which arise from an all-powerful head and governance which lacks clarity and direction. How many schools are dominated by Heads with Maxwell-sized egos.

Flippancy aside, this is all useful stuff. However, as with all self-assessments, they are treated most seriously by those who are least in need of reflection and criticism.

The checklist sets out what poor policies, procedures and practices look like. The document is fairly comprehensive. One area where the checklist says little is audit. It notes that critical audit reports and obfuscating auditees are fraud indicators. But what about where managers do not put in place robust internal audit arrangements and/or where governors let weak internal audit arrangements persist. The Principal’s PA or a governor without the time and skills to be an internal auditor is never enough.

Also it is worth noting that the checklist focuses on fraud risks internal to academies. There are plenty of external risks – and organisations tend to pay more attention to them (even if, not enough).

So what is my conclusion? If you are a manager, governor, internal or external auditor, spend some time working through the Fraud Indicators: A checklist for academies. If enough academies do treat fraud risks more seriously, academy assets and public funds will be better safeguarded as will the reputation of the sector.