Sunday, November 09, 2014

Fraud in Schools - what can be done?

In July news emerged of an investigation into an alleged fraud at a London academy after £4million of school funds disappeared. The case was kept under wraps for two years while parents were asked not to speak to reporters although hawk-eyed readers of the Department for Education’s annual accounts for 2012/13 might have noticed oblique references to an “irregularity” at the Haberdashers Aske’s academy trust. The case is believed to be largest school fraud in British education history.

While school managers might expect to notice and stop millions of pounds being siphoned off, schools are at risk from fraud perpetrated by those on the inside and the outside. Complacency - “it could never happen here” – worsens that vulnerability.

A perusal of Google news over a month or two will unearth cases of schools falling victim to managers signing off fake timesheets, finance assistants using cards to pay for holidays and heads appointing friends and family without due process. There are many more con artists outside trying to defraud schools – last year a solicitor was jailed for his part in tricking a sixth form college into paying over £730,000 intended for a genuine contractor into a bogus bank account.

While fraud risks cannot be eliminated, schools can mitigate them. A few simple steps can help:

1.       Get the tone from the top right

School leaders need to lead by example and emphasise probity. That means a fraud policy with zero tolerance of irregularity. There should be a register of interests for governors, senior managers and other staff with significant financial authority or influence. Similarly there should be a policy on gift and hospitality. Everyone should know about these policies – where to find them and what they require. 

2.       Assess risks and mitigate them

The identification, assessment and management of fraud risks should be covered by school risk registers – particularly in the risky area of purchasing.  There is plenty of free guidance available online including fraud risk self-assessments. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy recently published a Schools Fraud Health Check. Simple checks and balances with segregation of duties and independent review of transactions are effective in mitigating risks. This is more challenging for smaller schools, particularly primaries. However, there is normally a second pair of eyes, even if it is a governor, who can ensure that there is never too much reliance upon one member of staff.

3.       Look out for risk indicators

Both the Education Funding Agency and the Audit Commission have published advice on fraud risk indicators. The Commission’s list of behavioural warning signs included: reluctance to take holiday entitlement; poor work practices such as “bending rules”; a lifestyle not equal to income. There may be innocent reasons for strange behaviour but sometimes these can be indications of a staff member with something to hide. 

4.       Use data

While there are software packages to highlight strange patterns in financial data, a spreadsheet is sometimes enough to spot anomalies. A key check to perform is looking at the top dozen or so suppliers over the last year compared with previous years – does it make sense? There may be nothing untoward about using the same suppliers or contractors again and again. But, on the other hand, it may be a sign of an overly cosy or even inappropriate relationship with a supplier. (Aside from fraud risks, this simple review of spend patterns may identify value-for-money opportunities.)

5.       Welcome whistleblowing

Appropriate arrangements for confidential reporting are not only a legal must-have, whistleblowing is vital defence against fraud and other wrong-doing. Staff must know where to find the whistleblowing policy. The policy itself should link into the governance framework, including those elements perceived as most independent e.g. the audit committee, the internal and external auditors.

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