A DAMNING report has lifted the lid on “irregular expenditure” at a dissolved academy trust – including the payment of almost £140,000 to a company with connections to school staff.

Thrive Partnership Academy Trust, which was responsible for managing Philip Morant School, in Colchester, and Colne Community School, in Brightlingsea, was investigated by the Department of Education last year.

In a report published this week, investigators revealed they uncovered failings and weaknesses in the financial management and governance of the trust.

The investigation was carried out in June last year, following “multiple allegations.”

In March last year, the trust’s board suspended Chief Executive Officer Nardeep Sharma and Executive Principal Catherine Hutley.

The report said the suspensions followed “allegations of inappropriate conduct and financial mismanagement.”

It highlighted how a company, redacted from the report but identified as Mackman Ltd, had been hired by the trust for extensive work including branding and website design.

Investigators claim the company was chosen despite being the most expensive of three options put forward to the board of trustees.

The trust had paid the company almost £140,000 since October 2015, not including cash paid for “additional services not quoted for.”

Links were discovered between Mackman Ltd and school staff.

The report stated the events and marketing co-ordinator of the trust’s teaching school - who was also married to the assistant principal at Philip Morant - was the brother of one of the company’s directors.

The report also found alcohol had been charged to hotel rooms and Mr Sharma had spent £179 of the trust’s money on four “thank you” gift hampers.

The hampers, three of which included alcohol, were presented to the executive principal, a previous chair of the trust, a previous trustee and the former chair of Colne local governing body.

The report said: “Owing to the cost of the purchases and the recipients involved, this is a breach of the trust’s code and therefore deemed to be irregular expenditure.

“Consideration should therefore be given to recovering funding spent on such items.”

The report said both Mr Sharma and Ms Hutley breached government regulations by contributing and making proposals to meetings of the trust’s finance committee – including a suggestion the committee override an external auditor’s advice.

It also found the trust had employed two senior members of staff without board approval.

“There was no job description, advert or authority to recruit for the two appointments,” the report said.

Another issue raised concerned the trust paying out severance packages to four members of staff – two of which related to disciplinary matters and two relating to absence issues.

The report found there was no evidence the decision to end their employment had been approved by the local governing bodies.

The report raised concerns about financial oversight at the trust.

It outlines how prior to the start of the 2017/18 academic year, there was “very little” evidence of challenge or discussion of the trust’s financial position.

The report states in October 2017 Mr Sharma looked to secure a government loan of £1.4m to support “an extensive staff restructure.”

During interview with inspectors trustees said they were not aware of this loan application until March 2018.

But the minutes of a meeting held in November 2017 show Mr Sharma informed the finance committee the loan application had been completed.

The application was withdrawn in March 2018.

The Gazette approached Neil Jones, former chair of trustees, for comment, but he had not responded at the time of going to press. Mr Sharma and Ms Hutley both declined to comment.