Trust is not a control

Let me ask you…”Do you trust me?”

A simple question to which the answer, especially if asked by someone perceived to be in a position of authority, is invariably a hesitant ‘yes’, (although usually tempered by a sudden overwhelming feeling of insecurity.)


I’ll be the first one to stand up and tell you that I can’t be trusted. I am a human being, I am fallible, I make mistakes, I am occasionally susceptible to stress and I carry a great deal of responsibility on my shoulders. If severely under pressure I can rush and overlook the obvious, and if backed into a corner my instinct is to come out fighting.

So I believe that in a school the answer to that question must always be an emphatic ‘NO’.

I had a long conversation with a new friend in finance recently who hadn’t even considered the importance of the difference between the words ‘could’ and ‘would’.

“Could you steal money from your company?” “I wouldn’t steal money from my company” “I know but could you?” “I wouldn’t”…we went round and round in circles until he finally accepted that the systems and controls his company had in place were not robust enough and that he could, in fact, clean out the bank account and be lying on a beach in the the Caribbean for a few weeks before anyone realised.

Of course, many schools believe that they have the tightest of controls in place and nothing fraudulent could happen to them? Really? I ask, instantly seeing a red flag. Are all your passwords secure? Who can use the credit card? What are the authorisation thresholds? Where’s the safe key? How challenging are you governors? Can you show me a recent incidence where you haven’t followed policy?

One of the exam boards recently insisted that we secure a metal plate to the front of a small fireplace in the exams office, threatening to revoke our license. Of course we complied, amid lots of hilarity about the likelihood of Santa stealing exam papers, but have they actually got the right attitude? If you assume everything is at risk, everyone is corruptible and no one can be trusted, you automatically therefore put measures in place to minimise the risk. You accept everyone is human and just, as far as possible, remove their ability to make inappropriate decisions and (at worst) commit fraud. In doing so, you protect them from themselves.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I also believe in the innate honesty of the general population. Public sector workers are, in my experience, more usually in their job for love, not money, and I think there are very few people out there that would maliciously defraud children.

But be in no doubt, they are out there. Would you be able to recognise them?


Therefore it is vital that appropriate controls are implemented, monitored and, crucially, tested across the school. Don’t overlook the critical process of testing your controls on a regular basis to see a) if they work and b) how long it is before you notice something is wrong. And SBMs will know, I’m not just talking about finance here. Health & Safety is another area that if not robustly controlled and tested can result in worse loss than just money.

So the next time you hear someone moaning about policy, rules and regulations, governor challenge and authority reporting requirements, ask them…

Do you trust me?

‘No’ is what keeps us safe. ‘No’ protects us all. No’ allows us to prove that we are adding value. ‘No’ records that we are getting best value. ‘No’ ensures we can all work together, observe each other and not feel we are treated differently to our colleagues. ‘No’ offers us a healthy workplace culture in which everyone plays their part to monitor, evaluate and improve.

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