‘Unusual payments’ involving super head land school with warning

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Another school where a controversial 'super-head' was paid eye-watering sums has been hit with a 'financial notice to improve' (FNtI) by a government regulator.

The fall out over "novel and contentious" payments involving retired head teacher Patrick Ferguson has hit Hope Academy, in Newton-le-Willows, which received the notice from the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) this month.

The ESFA said its investigators had identified "multiple breaches" of financial rules regarding the funding of academies.

Michael Boland, chairman of the school's governing body, told the ECHO the notice was unusual for a school in "such a strong financial position" and was solely related to Hope Academy's relationship with three other academies.

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The ECHO has revealed how Mr Ferguson was receiving a combined salary of £240,000 per year between August 2019 and August 2020.

During that time he was working full time as as principal of Hope Academy taking home £140,000 per year, but also received £100,000 for "not less than 3.3 days per week" as the chief executive of the All Saints Multi Academy Trust – which runs St Francis of Assisi in Tuebrook and St Nicholas in Garston.

All Saints received a Financial Notice to Improve in relation to the arrangement in December.

Patrick Ferguson, former principal of Hope Academy and CEO of All Saints Multi Academy Trust

Mr Boland confirmed Hope Academy had been investigated by the ESFA over these arrangements but also £123,000 payments the school received for "services" to St Francis Xavier's College in Woolton, where Mr Ferguson was a director.

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The notice from the ESFA said, addressed to Mr Boland, said: "As you are aware, Education and Skills Funding (ESFA) Provider Management Oversight conducted a fact-finding review in February 2020 and a further review of the Trust in November 2020 which identified an extensive number of breaches of the Academies Financial Handbook (AFH).

"This letter and its annexes serve as a written notice to improve financial management, control and governance at the Trust.

"It reflects the weak financial position of the Trust and continued concerns on governance and oversight of financial management by the Board."

But Mr Boland claimed the issues were narrower, telling the ECHO: "The ESFA, the regulator of Academy finances, have been reviewing how we have been working with other schools over the last two years or so.

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"They have decided after 14 months of careful review that the relationship with SFX and All Saints were novel and contentious and found that the Academy were in breach of some regulations and as such had to issue us with a FNTI.

"It is unusual for any Academy to receive a ‘notice to improve’ and even more unusual when the Academy is in such a strong financial position as ours.

"The notice is not related to our day to day financial procedures or our available funding, we have a particularly healthy financial surplus.

"Our Auditors recently reported our financial position as strong, the Department for Education benchmarking sites shows us as low risk and high preforming in terms of management of expenditure and in generating in year surpluses, the ESFA have also acknowledged that we have positive finances.

"We have started and will continue to work closely and positively with the ESFA over the next couple of months."

Teaching stalwart Mr Ferguson, who has been lauded throughout his career for turning around failing schools, resigned as Principal of Hope Academy on December 31 after quitting as All Saints CEO in August.

In accounts published for All Saints and Hope Academy in February, accountancy firm RSM UK Audit LLP highlighted the unusual payments as a matter of concern.

After auditing All Saints' books, the firm stated: "Payments were made to the accounting officer [Patrick Ferguson] for the period September 1, 2019, to August 31, 2020, of £100,000 for not less than 3.3 days per week in respect of their undertaking that role on a part-time basis.

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"The individual was also appointed as accounting officer on a full-time basis at another Academy trust.

"The FNtI received by the trust on December 3, 2020, identifies that the trust failed to apply a robust evidenced-based approach in its decisions about levels of executive pay and reflect the individual's roles and responsibilities."

The same firm said about Hope Academy: "Payments in the year were made to the previous accounting officer [Patrick Ferguson] and other members of staff of £9,020 (cumulatively of £60,082) in respect of the provision of services to another Academy trust.

"This arrangement was determined to be novel and contentious by the ESFA and prior approval was not sought.

"There is limited evidence of oversight of the full board and therefore of their full approval in the areas identified.

"These arrangements are subject to a review by the ESFA which is not yet closed which may identify other matters upon its conclusion."