Trustees and governors of a "not-for-profit" trust which runs five schools across Wiltshire have been criticised in a damning government report which found "highly unusual" financial practices.
The report by the Education Funding Agency questioned a trip by governors to New York, a series of highly-paid jobs given to family members without being advertised, and overall expenses of governors of £45,000.
The chief executive of the Education Fellowship Trust, which runs three primary schools and two large secondary schools in Wiltshire, quit after the initial investigation, and the trust said last night that it was working with the Government's agency to tighten up its financial procedures.
The trust is based in Northampton, where it runs a number of schools, but has since expanded into Wiltshire. It runs three primary schools in the county: Kings Lodge and Monkton Park in Chippenham, and Pembroke Place in Salisbury, and Abbeyfield secondary school in Chippenham.
It also runs one of Trowbridge's biggest schools, Clarendon College, which hit the headlines when the "super-head" who had been brought in to turn around the school, Mark Stenton, had a very public affair with a school administrator, which ended up in the pages of "real-life gossip" magazines.
It is understood most of the "highly unusual financial practices" discovered by the Government's authorities that monitor academy book-keeping relate to the trust's headquarters in Northampton, and relate to a period up until the start of the present academic year last autumn.
The report states the trust committed "significant breaches" of financial regulations, and makes 28 different recommendations.
The Government's watchdog questioned expenses of £45,000 paid to two trustees, an all-expenses paid trip to New York, "very high levels" of private car usage, and the recruitment of people who were the family members of senior staff or trustees to a number of posts.
It said a £70,000-a-year "director of communications" job was given to a relative without that post being advertised or different people applying.
The financial watchdog also questioned why the trust should spend £915 on Christmas cards, £600 on its own branded umbrellas and £20,000 on the New York trip.
The Education Funding Agency acknowledged that since the period covered by the inspection last year, a new chief executive has taken over and is "committed to putting in place appropriate governance structures and controls, and feels that the review will act as a catalyst for considerable change within the trust".
For now the EFA said the trust was being monitored and reserved the right to take "further action".
The Government's own Department for Education had served the trust with a "financial notice to improve". "Academies operate under a strict system of oversight and accountability – more robust than in council-run schools — which means any issues are identified and that we can take swift action to address them," a spokesman said.
A spokesman for the Education Fellowship Trust said a lot had changed since the period the report covered. "The EFA is very clear that all issues found are from pre-September – before significant structural changes were made and Johnson Kane was appointed as CEO," she said.
"The fellowship had already commenced on change of policies and governance in November 2013, before the review took place.
"The EFA acknowledged to the fellowship that it was under a different structure and clear evidence was showing that there was a positive change in the operation since September 2013.
"The EFA is working with the fellowship closely to ensure they successfully grow and continue to have the enormous impact it has already within its schools," she added.