If you’re working in or with the education sector you’d have to have been living on another planet not to have noticed that the report on the investigations on the Barnfield Federation was released on Friday. There are a number of findings but of most interest to Minerva are, understandably, those in respect of procurement procedures.
As an organisation that works with schools helping them with their procurement we’d be the first to admit that it’s not rocket science. We always advise that two of the biggest benefits of using us are the time we save bursars and School Business Mangers coupled with ensuring that the procurement process is completely compliant.
The flow chart below shows the process we undertake which is compliant with Department for Education guidelines.
In the case of the Barnfield Federation there were numerous instances of proper procurement processes not being followed and proper documentation not maintained. Indeed the firm where the Acting Chair of the BAT (Barnfield Academy Trust) is employed was awarded work (the value of which is not known as it was redacted) and his/her connection to the firm was not disclosed in the annual accounts. There are several breaches of numerous requirements here.
The Federation operate a ‘shared services’ model and whilst it’s acknowledged that the quality of services is good the cost, when benchmarked, is abnormally high. There are no Service Level Agreements in place for these services and so it isn’t possible to assess value for money – a key responsibility of any school.
The AET (Academies Enterprise Trust) is looking to a shared services model themselves and would do well to heed the lessons from this investigation.
Another area which is commonly overlooked by schools and yet can accumulate a lot of spend almost under the radar are Government Procurement Cards. Effectively charge cards they’re settled every month but often spend on them is not pre-approved and receipts not sufficiently challenged or assessed on submission. In the case of the Barnfield Federation this was another area where there simply wasn't enough rigour.
It is clear that the overly complex nature of the group, shown in the organisational chart below, has contributed to the number of oversights that have occurred. Many of the issues have occurred when the over-riding Trust has made decisions on behalf of the underlying academies/free school which have never been ratified by those entities.
So what can we learn from this latest investigation?
Well I think the most obvious point is to ensure you abide by procurement policies and keep things simple. There is nothing wrong with a shared services model, and we would strongly advocate them due to the administrative and financial advantages they offer, but you cannot afford to ignore the rules. Financial rigour in any school is of paramount importance. We are talking about tax payer money here. Whilst this should be done as a matter of course there is the additional 'incentive' that the activities of all academy sponsors is being scrutinised to such a high degree. The media are constantly looking for 'bad news' stories from academies and free schools and it's boardering on obsessive in my opinion. All the more reason to make sure your procurement house is well and truly in order.
What I think is an interesting point for debate here is whose responsibility procurement comes under? Is it the Finance Director, is there a dedicated Procurement Officer? If not, perhaps it's time they got one?