On Friday 25th of November a letter from the Education Funding Agency (EFA) to Claire Emery, the chair of The Ridings Federation Of Academies Trust was made public. The letter was a “Financial notice to improve” which is a formal legal notification.
You can read the letter on the government’s web site.
The EFA is the central government body which, on behalf of the Department For Education, manages the funding of all state education for children. They are responsible for providing money to The Ridings Federation and ensuring it is used appropriately.
If the money is not being handled correctly the EFA has the power to take over control of the school finances. In extreme circumstances they can effectively shut down a school by cutting off its money supply. This is not this case for The Ridings Federation at the moment.
Why issue a notice?
The notice states that the trust has failed to ensure robust governance arrangements and failed to ensure good financial management and effective internal controls.
This is essentially a complete breakdown of the trust’s function. It has failed to engage suitable people to run the school and failed to manage the school’s money properly. These are most probably connected.
Although the notice was only made public on the 25th of November it was dated the 14th of the same month. Claire Emery was required to acknowledge receipt a few days later.
The notice itself makes mention of prior conversations between Claire Emery and the EFA since she was appointed as chair of the trust on the 1st of September. So there were nearly three months of communication prior to the notice being issued.
Here’s the sequence of events as well as we know them:
October 2014: Long time Chief Executive Principle Dr Gibson leaves
February 2015: Beverly Martin appointed Chief Executive Principle.
November 2015: Beverly Martin leaves.
May 2016: Claire Emery contracted to perform review of governance.
1st September: Claire Emery becomes Chair of TRF Trust
14th October: A financial recovery plan is submitted to the EFA
4th November: Claire Emery reports optimism about the recovery plan.
11th November: Claire Emery stated that the financial recovery plan has been dropped and the school will be re-brokered.
14th November: EFA issue their notice.
So it seems likely that the financial plan that was meant to address the shortcomings in the trust did not meet with the EFA’s approval – they didn’t think that it would enable the trust to continue. This plan was dropped in favour of re-brokering and the notice became inevitable.
According to the notice the academy was already in difficulty when Claire Emery joined. During her short time as Chief Executive Principle Beverly Martin also said that significant changes were needed and attempted to address them albeit unsuccessfully.
It now seems likely that the roots of the problem run back further than either Beverly Martin or Claire Emery. By November this year they were so bad that the board were unable to produce a plan which met the EFA’s criteria for allowing the trust to continue.
What does the notice mean for the school?
The restrictions placed on the school apply immediately. They will remain in place until at least the 31st of December 2018: about two years.
There are two main things imposed by the notice.
Another review of governance
By the 6th of January the trust must have agreed with the EFA the details of an independent review of financial management and governance at the trust. This will make recommendations that determine what action needs to be taken immediately. This review must be completed by the 3rd of February.
By the 17th of February the school must submit an action plan which will meet the recommendations made in the review.
Financial autonomy removed
For the whole term of the notice all spending must be approved by the EFA.
This effectively places control of the school in the hands of the EFA. Given the financial problems already present in the school it seems unlikely that there will be much money available for anything other than the bare necessities.
It is also likely that financial decisions would take a long time to make so the operation of the school would be further disrupted.
How does re-brokering affect this?
The notice places restrictions on The Ridings Federation Trust, not the school. If WIA was re-brokered than the notice would effectively cease to apply.
Any organisation which takes over the school would be able to deal with its finances in the normal manner.
What’s going to happen?
The trust has said that there will an “in principle” decision on re-brokering by the 1st of January. This is before the trust is required to make any response to the EFA.
Regardless of the decision of re-brokering, in order to avoid further sanctions from the EFA the external audit will be planned, performed and completed by the 17th of February. None of the possible actions suggested by the board will happen soon enough to avoid this.
If a re-brokering is agreed then the plan submitted to meet the recommendations of the audit will be to re-broker to an academy chain.
The trust intends the re-brokering to be complete by September next year. At this point the notice will be history and WIA will run normally within an academy chain with no extra restrictions on spending.
In the meantime money will continue to be very tight and the school will continue to need EFA approval on all spending.
What if re-brokering doesn’t happen?
If a re-brokering cannot be agreed prior to the point where an action plan is required then the future is very unclear.
The trust has already failed to produce a plan which convinced the EFA. They will have no extra money or new resources to make a better one. At this point the Financial Agreement with the EFA could be terminated – the school could be closed in its present form. This eventuality is described in the notice.