A gift for the finance officer

10th May 1996 at 01:00

GRANT-MAINTAINED AND INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS: AN INDUSTRY ACCOUNTING AND AUDITING GUIDE. By Christine Dickson, Available at Pounds 55 from Accountancy Books; telephone 01908 248000 to order

The book is what it says. It gives a detailed set of procedures and regulations that a school finance office should follow, and an approach to checking these for both school staff and external auditors. Despite the fact that it is primarily aimed at accountants who might have schools as clients, it is potentially useful to schools as a finance reference guide.

For such a purpose, this kind of book stands or falls by a fairly simple (but not easily achievable) set of criteria: accuracy, completeness,indexing, readability.

Christine Dickson, from auditors Chantrey Vellacot, scores high on all counts. The book is a reliable fund of information across virtually the whole range of financial accounting procedures. Moreover, the contents pages, internal headings and numbered sub-headings, together with a first-class index, put all this information in a format that is extremely quick to access.

This book really can be used as a fast look-up reference work on specifics, as well as an overall guide to what a complete financial system needs to fulfil standard and Department for Education and EmploymentFunding Agency for Schools requirements.

Best of all, having quickly found the desired section, the reader is almost always met with commendably clear and direct prose. Christine Dickson is fortunately one of those with the self-confidence to communicate simply. Few heads or deputies in relevant schools would fail to be further informed by it, and even fewer would go wrong in buying it for the finance officer.

Any unhappiness is with the regulations themselves, rather than Christine Dickson's guidance. The whole notion of "responsible officer" in a grant-maintained school, for example, has always been less than clearly conceived. The headteacher was sensibly recommended as an appropriate person to take this system-checking role, but financial enthusiasts wanted the role to be that of an external checker on the head. Then a conceptual uncertainty about whether governors are themselves "external" or "internal" led to more muddle. The rainbow pack's latest effort at a solution - to make the head the principal finance officer, and a governor (or other) the responsible officer, leads to a ludicrously top-heavy hierarchy of financial Fat Controllers - the school bursar, the head, the finance committee, the chair of the finance committee, the chair of governors, the responsible officer.

Christine Dickson's book, of course, follows regulations rather than makes them but occasionally I unfairly wanted it to demand a change for simpler financial management and decision-making structures. Authorisation systems need to be in place with a fair degree of responsibility to act within them. Let governors govern, school leaders manage, auditors check - and let's all remember that accounts are essential, but essentially peripheral.

Still, I am not an accountant. The book was not intended for me. Nevertheless, I looked on it, and, lo, it was good.

* Bruce Douglas is legal secretary of the Secondary Heads Association and principal of Branston Community College, Lincolnshire

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