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Heads called to account to cut fraud

PRIMARY AND special school headteachers in England must get to grips with a new initiative designed to check their work of managing school finances and to prevent fraud.

Secondary heads had until March this year to submit their Financial Management Standard in Schools portfolios. The scheme will now be introduced to all primaries over the next three years.

Unions fear that primary schools will find it more difficult to cope with the system, introduced by the Department for Education and Skills, as they are less likely to have a bursar or other specialist staff. Most of the work will fall on the shoulders of headteachers, management teams and governors.

Schools are required to provide a thick dossier of evidence showing they meet a list of standards, ensuring accountability and good financial management. The idea is to prevent cases of fraud, such as that of Colleen McCabe, who stole pound;500,000 while head at St John Rigby College in Bromley, south-east London. She was jailed for five years in 2003, after spending school money on shoes, clothes and a champagne lifestyle.

Another aim is to ensure schools do not hoard their budgets.

Delegates at the recent National Association of Head Teachers' conference complained that the initiative was costly and largely superfluous. Some argued that three-yearly audits, spot checks and Ofsted provided more than enough monitoring.

David Pratt, an NAHT national executive member and head of Little Common school in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, said the scheme was like using a "sledgehammer to crack nuts". "I don't think there has been enough of a problem with staff misusing funds to merit this reaction," he said.

Tracey Coles, head of St Chad's primary school in Lichfield, Staffordshire, said she would receive half a day's training in June and her local authority expected the completed portfolio by October. "This won't be long enough, if you take into account all the other things we have to do. I'm looking at 70 hours extra work to fill this in," she said.

Every three years, schools will be expected to provide evidence in a range of categories. Regarding "leadership and governance", they must show "the headteacher and bursar operate with financial integrity, setting an example to governors and staff alike". Schools must also have "realistic" budgets.

Eight approved external assessors will charge schools between pound;500 and pound;1,738 to issue a certificate showing the establishment is up to scratch. If a school narrowly fails, they will have 20 days' grace to sort out the problem. If the problems are more severe, they will have to arrange an action plan with their local authority.


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