What multi-academy trust (MAT) finance officers need to know about the new Academy Trust Handbook

It’s not often that an official document for people in education gets shorter and simpler. But that’s the objective of the latest edition of the Academy Trust Handbook, just published by the government.

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The handbook is the key document which trustees, accounting officers, chief financial officers and auditors for academies are expected to read and comply with.

“This year’s handbook is a materially shorter and sharper document,” the government says.

There’s no denying that it’s shorter, running to 62 pages compared with the 78 pages of the 2022 edition.

The new handbook also changes or clarifies a number of key points affecting the finance function in individual academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs).

What’s changed in the new 2023 edition of the Academy Trust Handbook

Here are the key changes in the Academy Trust Handbook – also known as the Academies Financial Handbook – when it comes to finance:

  • The handbook now says the trust board should “identify the skills and experience it needs, including sufficient financial knowledge to hold the executive to account”. (The previous text did not include the word “sufficient” or the reference to holding the executive to account.)

  • The handbook now spells out that the roles of accounting officer and chief financial officer should not be occupied by the same person.

  • There is a change of policy on trust transactions with related parties. The value above which such transactions have to be approved by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) rises from £20,000 a financial year to £40,000.

  • The passage about MATs pooling their academies’ General Annual Grant (GAG) money and allocating their spending to meet their priorities has been strengthened. The handbook now acknowledges that “this “can be integral to a trust’s successful financial operating model”. As before, a trust doing this must consider the needs of each academy and there must be an appeals mechanism, with ESFA potentially giving a final ruling.

  • Trusts are no longer required to give an explanation in the annual accounts if they hold fewer than six board meetings a year.

  • Trusts have an extra month to submit their annual budget forecast returns. These will be due in August, not July.

  • Trusts will have more discretion in the distribution of their management accounts. They must prepare these accounts monthly and share them with the chair of trustees, while the board must consider them when it meets. (A longer passage, which included the requirement to share these accounts with all trustees six times a year, even when there is no meeting, has been dropped.)

  • The handbook confirms that salary sacrifice schemes can be set up for electric vehicles, usually without government approval.


The Schedule of Musts for academies

The publication of the 2023 Academy Trust Handbook is accompanied by a new document, the Schedule of Musts.

Taking the form of an Excel spreadsheet, it is effectively a checklist of all the requirements set out in the handbook.

The government points out that the list of “musts” is an optional resource and that trusts are not required to fill it out and submit it to ESFA.

“It abbreviates these requirements and so cannot be used as a substitute for the full handbook,” the government says.

The list is lengthy, but the subjects covered include:

  • Responsibility for financial affairs and controls;
  • Preparing and monitoring financial plans;
  • Forecasting accurately;
  • Notifying the government if proposing a revenue budget deficit;
  • Financial discipline and management of assets; and
  • Producing audited accounts and appointing auditors.

The full Schedule of Musts can be viewed here.

The latest edition of the Academy Trust Handbook.

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