Financial woes strike at Academy

Berwick Academy has been handed a '˜Financial Notice to Improve' by a government department.

Friday, 28th December 2018, 07:52 am
Berwick Academy

The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) has expressed concerns about its weak financial position and the governance and oversight of financial management.

A letter to the school from Mike Pettifer, director of the Academies and Maintained Schools Group at the ESFA, stated: ‘I recognise the cooperation and extensive discussions that have taken place between the Trust and officials and the changes you plan to make to strengthen internal financial controls.

‘Additionally I acknowledge that Berwick faces some unique challenges due to location and demographics. However, my concerns remain in relation to the weak financial position and the governance and oversight of financial management at the Trust, which led to breaches of the Academies Financial Handbook (AFH).’

He said the written notice to improve financial management, control and governance ‘reflects the continued concerns about lack of pace in improving governance and the oversight of financial management by the Board.’

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A school spokesman said: “Parents and carers will be aware that the school faces serious financial challenges. Both the Regional Schools Commissioner, the Department of Education and Northumberland Local Education Authority have been incredibly supportive but legally the financial situation must be formally recognised.

“As a result, and sadly in common with many other academies at this time, Berwick Academy has received a Financial Notice To Improve.

“Whilst we acknowledge this situation is far from ideal, the Trustees are working closely and positively with the Academy’s Senior Leadership Team and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) with the objective of securing the long-term financial stability we all seek.

“Additionally, the ESFA have recognised the cooperation and extensive discussions that have taken place between the Trust and officials. We have a clear strategy and have already commenced work on resolving the situation, focussing on making good decisions for our children’s education for now and into the future.”

It has been a difficult 12 months for the school with the resignation of former headteacher Alexis Widdowson in February followed by the publication of a damning Ofsted report in which inspectors judged it to be ‘inadequate’ and placed it in special measures. A follow-up Ofsted inspection acknowledged that improvements had been made but the pace of progress was too slow.

Acting headteacher Steve Wilkes stepped down earlier this month with Trace Hush taking his place on an interim basis until a permanent new headteacher is appointed.

The Berwick Academy Trust is now required to develop and implement an action plan which responds to all of the issues identified, as well as commission further independent reviews into governance and financial management. This must include. as a minimum, an assessment of the oversight exercised by the Trust board. This review must be completed by March 1, with the action plan submitted by April 5.

The school is also being encouraged to explore all opportunities to realise efficiencies, including consideration of joining a Multi-Academy Trust.

It must also provide a revised and accurate recovery plan by February 10; this should include details of financial assistance required. It should also include consideration (with justifications of why some of the efficiencies are not being taken up) and should be accompanied by a separate review of non-teaching staff, with a report including a cost/benefit analysis for each role.

Mr Pettifer added: ‘We will monitor progress made towards meeting the requirements associated with this Notice. In the event that the Trust fails to meet the requirements of this Notice, to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State, the Trust will be considered to have failed to comply with the terms of the AFH. As a result of this breach of the AFH, and therefore also of the FA, the termination process in the FA may be triggered.’

The full text of the notice is available at https://www.gov.uk