So Ofsted has signalled it decision to inspect multi-academy trusts. There is no detail set out in the Ofsted strategy 2017-22 and presumably there will be further discussion , dialogue and formal consultation with the sector. The relevant paragraph from the Ofsted document reads:
“The education, training and care landscapes have changed dramatically in recent years. The growth of children’s services trusts, regional adoption agencies, apprenticeship providers and multi-academy trusts was not envisaged under current inspection legislation. That has meant our inspection practice has not always kept pace with the education landscape. Inspection should be targeted at the right level within a provider, the level at which decisions are made. In the coming months, we will work with the Department for Education to develop new approaches and expertise to allow us to better scrutinise education, training and care structures, including at the multi-academy trust level, as well as individual schools.”
In theory it’s hard to argue with the principle of inspecting MATs – they are responsible for nearly a third of all schools in England. Even if one discounts the 1,744 academies that are in so-called empty MATs (i.e. there is at this point only one academy in the MAT) that still leaves MATs accountable for a quarter of all schools.
A resourcing problem
But the problem comes when you start to turn the theory into practice. If the plan is to inspect MATs in the same way that local authorities are inspected – as some of the comment accompanying the announcement has suggested – you immediately run into a resource issue. Ofsted has had its funding cut significantly in recent years – the resources for inspection are now very definitely finite. There are only 152 education authorities in England but there are already (discounting the empty MATs) 980 MATs and the number is rising all the time. How is Ofsted going to inspect such a large number of organisations?
One option might be to say that MAT inspection will only focus on those MATs that run six or more schools – i.e. they have a significant multi-school responsibility. On current numbers that would reduce the number of MATs to be inspected down to 258 – possibly a manageable number. However, as there are over 400 MATs comprising three to five academies then by the time any legislation was passed giving Ofsted the power to operate in this arena, it is likely that Ofsted would be looking at having to inspect nearly 700 entities.
A more radical option would be to say that Ofsted will inspect all MATs but where it finds the MAT to be an effective – or highly effective – school improvement organisation it will not inspect the individual academies within the MAT. Effectively Ofsted would quality assure MATs and trust the judgement of the best when it came to assessing and supporting schools within the MAT. There is a certain logic to that position and it could dramatically reduce the number of individual schools Ofsted had to inspect and help ease its regulatory load. But are parents, politicians and even schools ready for such a radical change? Would the public and the profession accept doing away with the holy grail of an inspection grade for each individual institution?
A third option might be for Ofsted to adopt a more risk-based approach – i.e. given the wealth of data held on each school (and increasingly groups of schools – we now have MAT performance tables, for example) Ofsted would identify those MATs that seemed to be struggling to add value in terms of school improvement and would draw up an inspection schedule accordingly. That, however, does not seem to be a million miles from what is happening with the current system of focused inspections. It would betoken incremental rather than radical change.
The quantitative problems are far from being the only challenge. How would inspection fit with the role of the RSCs who are themselves currently undertaking a review of all MATs? The Education Select Committee has already been probing away at this and any formal inspection role for Ofsted would be bound to put the relationship between the respective RSC and Ofsted functions under intense scrutiny.
Then there is the issue of whether of whether Ofsted would have the relevant capacity or expertise to conduct MAT inspections. As Jon Challoner, CEO of the MAT that is responsible for a number of the local schools where I live, told TES,
“…I don’t understand where the expertise will come from, of practitioners who’ve worked in that environment. If you’re being inspected by people who’ve never worked at the centre of a MAT before, they really need to understand how a MAT functions before they pass that judgement.”
But perhaps the biggest challenge of all relates to the nature of any MAT inspection. While MATs have formal accountabilities under their funding agreements and legal responsibilities under education and company law they do not have statutory duties in the same that local authorities do. So MAT inspection is bound to be a very different beast from an LA inspection.
MATs also take many forms. Practice varies widely in terms of how they operate. Are MATs going to inspected against outcomes or will there be an implicit set of assumptions about effective practice looks like? If so, where is the research for that effective practice and the evidence linking it to outcomes? We haven’t got it because nobody – including the DfE and Ofsted has commissioned it. During Sir Michael Wilshaw’s reign one of his monthly commentaries was devoted to describing the characteristics of higher performing academy trusts – but that’s about the sum total of research we have. And it was based on looking at just seven MATs.
The first priority – which the DfE, the RSCs and the sector all seem to be recognising – is to develop a much greater and shared understanding of the different ways that MATs can be most effective as agencies of school improvement. Through a combination of self-assessment, peer review, action research and academic or independent research we need to build up an evidence-based picture of what is most effective in different contexts. Ofsted has just appointed Daniel Muijs as its head of research. Professor Muijs has a background in researching school-to-school collaboration. One of the first things he might do in his new role is to commission a study of the practice and evidence that will help the MAT sector understand the range of practices and systems that are contributing most to accelerating the progress and performance of staff and pupils.
When we have an evidence base and when we have a strategy for supporting MATs to develop their capacity then we might be ready for an inspection model. But as things stand we risk putting the cart before the horse.