When understanding the head teacher’s role as an accounting officer, it is worth being reminded of the accountability structure in the academy sector.
All academy trusts are held to account in their capacity as charities by the Charities Commission. The Education Funding Agency (EFA) holds academy trusts to account as central government public bodies for their finances and OFSTED holds them to account for academies’ teaching. At a local level, they are answerable to other stakeholders including parents, their students and the local community. In single academy trusts, the governing body acts on behalf of the trust board.
In multi-academy trusts, comprising a number of academies, it is the responsibility of the local governing bodies or local academy councils, operating on behalf of the academy trust, to provide a clear vision and strategic direction for each school. The governing body must oversee the financial performance of the school and hold the head teacher to account for its educational performance.
The academy trust is required by its funding agreement with the Secretary of State for Education to designate a named individual as the ‘accounting officer’ and this designation confers legal responsibility for financial and administrative matters. The delegation is usually made to the head teacher/principal of the school, or the executive head/chief executive officer in a multi-academy trust.
Safeguarding budgets The accounting officer has a key role in ensuring that public money is safeguarded and only spent on the purposes for which it was intended. They must assure the trust board of the academy’s compliance with the requirements of the EFA’s Academies Financial Handbook, its funding agreement and all relevant aspects of company and charitable law. This means that they must ensure that trust board and governing body members receive the information that they need to perform their roles effectively. They are responsible for the day-to-day organisation, staffing and management of the academy trust. And they must undertake a leadership role, including setting high standards of financial probity and financial management, and ensuring that these are communicated to staff.
Acting in the public interest The accounting officer is therefore the individual in an academy who links the accountability and governance structures. He or she is a member of the governing body of the academy and must ensure that the academy acts within its powers and that its policies reflect legislative requirements, national policies and local requirements. At the same time, they must ensure that the academy trust’s operating capacity is aligned with these requirements including its staffing, financial management and control environment. In all its actions, the accounting officer must ensure the academy trust acts in the public interest.
In practice, the accounting officer does not do this all on their own. Many of the tasks, such as drafting policies, running finance systems and processes, and HR support, are delegated to other members of staff.
For example, while accountability for financial matters cannot be delegated, in the day to day financial management of the academy, the accounting officer will inevitably need to place reliance on the work of the chief financial officer (CFO) or lead finance professional. The academy trust board is required by the Academies Financial Handbook to appoint to this role. It is essential, therefore, that the person appointed as CFO has the accounting officer’s trust, and they must be able to work well together. Their roles and responsibilities should be clearly set out so that tensions between the two do not arise. The following paragraphs set out some areas where the CFO can assist the accounting officer in his or her role.
Decision-making An academy must be rigorous in its decision‑making – the reasons for decisions should be explicit and the supporting information should be recorded. Trustees, governors, and staff should be supported through the availability of appropriate financial advice for all major resource committees including the finance (or equivalent) committee, the audit committee, and the governing body(ies). The CFO has a key role to play in ensuring that members of these bodies have the timely, robust and impartial information that they need, together with meaningful financial analysis.
Internal control and risk management To assist the accounting officer, the CFO should lead the implementation and maintenance of a framework of financial controls and procedures for managing financial risks, and must determine accounting processes and oversee financial management procedures that enable the institution to budget and manage within its overall resources. At the most fundamental level this means ensuring robust systems of risk management and internal control, that financial control is exercised consistently, and that the organisation implements appropriate measures to protect its assets from fraud and loss.
Monitoring the academy’s financial position The accounting officer, governing body(ies) and senior management must monitor the academy’s financial position regularly. To assist in monitoring the academy’s financial position, the CFO should have responsibility for drawing up budgets, financial targets and performance indicators to help assess delivery.
Securing value for money (economy, efficiency and effectiveness) releases resources for higher priorities within an academy trust. The accounting officer should ensure that value for money is the concern of all managers, but it is helpful for the CFO to take the lead in co-ordinating and facilitating a culture of efficiency.
Accounting records & statements Academy trusts are required to keep proper accounting records and to prepare annual financial statements in accordance with the accounts directions issued by the funding body. The accounting officer should be able to rely on the CFO to ensure that financial statements are prepared promptly and meet the reporting requirements: the law, financial reporting standards and professional standards as reflected in Accounting and Reporting by Charities: Statement of Recommended Practice (SORP).
The accounting officer must undertake a leadership role across the academy. This will mean, together with the other trustees and governing body members, determining the strategic direction of the academy trust and its academies (where relevant), and also being responsible for turning policy aspirations into reality. The accounting officer should look to the CFO to align financial planning with the institution’s vision and strategic objectives and to develop financial forecasts and budgets that illustrate that the institution’s strategy is realistic and capable of being delivered.
The accounting officer should ensure appropriate policies are in place so that decisions are taken objectively and steps are taken to avoid or deal with conflicts of interest whether real or perceived. The Academies Financial Handbook places emphasis on the need for the accounting officer to manage carefully relationships with connected parties to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest and to ensure that restrictions placed on trade that can be undertaken by academy trusts with connected parties are complied with. Senior staff, including the CFO, should assist the accounting officer by exemplifying high standards of conduct and personal behaviour and in ensuring that an appropriate ‘tone at the top’ is established.
Final thoughts Clearly the responsibilities of the head teacher as accounting officer are crucial to the smooth running of an academy and in ensuring probity and financial stewardship. This is in addition to all those duties associated with being the academic lead for the school. Thus, the overall role is very wide. Therefore, it is essential that the head teacher is supported, as an accounting officer, effectively by his or her administrative staff, especially the CFO, for these purposes.