Why MATs are doubling schools’ inspection burden

Ofsted warns that internal inspections are an ‘unacceptable waste of staff time and pupil funding’
5th May 2017, 12:00am
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Why MATs are doubling schools’ inspection burden


When Ruth Coombs’ academy went into special measures, she knew that this would mean termly visits from Ofsted.

What the deputy headteacher did not realise was that it would also mean a second set of termly inspections, with even higher stakes. These were conducted by Oasis Community Learning, the academy chain to which Coombs’ school belonged.

“Sometimes an Ofsted visit felt easy in comparison,” Coombs (not her real name) says. “Oasis are your employers, so you want to do a good job for them - prove all the things you’re putting in place are having an impact.

“We felt we needed to prove that we were moving things forwards. Otherwise they’d start looking at the senior leadership team, and ultimately it was my job at risk.”

Most multi-academy trusts (MATs) now run internal inspections of their schools, according to Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union. “MATs have a duty to understand what’s going on in their schools,” he says.

“Schools wouldn’t want them to go on raw data alone. But how welcome inspections are probably depends on how they’re operated.”

And how they are operated varies considerably between academy chains. Some MATs conduct formal inspections, following the Ofsted framework; others limit the inspection to little more than an informal chat between the headteacher and MAT executives.

But Ofsted is clear that internal inspections are “an unnecessary waste of teachers’ time”.

Ark, one of the larger MATs, sends one or two Ofsted-trained inspectors - either retired or freelancing on the side - into each of its 35 schools every year. They are accompanied by one or two members of the Ark executive.

Each school completes an Ofsted-style self-evaluation form before the inspection. The Ark inspectors then talk to senior leaders, middle management and pupils. They also observe lessons, before drawing up a series of targets for the school.

“We bring in HMIs [senior Ofsted inspectors] because they provide us with a helpful external perspective,” says Brian Sims, Ark’s director of education.

“I know that there can be a culture of high-stakes inspections. But we don’t use them for high-stakes decisions about personnel and management.”

At Reach2, the largest primary-only MAT in the country, internal inspections are carried out by senior leaders from Reach2 schools, supported by an external consultant.

They are conducted roughly a term before an Ofsted inspection is due, and follow the watchdog’s framework, with an emphasis on leadership, management and pupil progress.

A Reach2 spokesperson said: “This approach allows schools to be confident during an Ofsted inspection and provides a great development opportunity for our school leaders.”

Some smaller MATs, however, conduct less formal inspections. The Samuel Ward Academy Trust, in East Anglia, brings all its headteachers to each of its 15 schools for a day, and uses the inspection as a staff development exercise.

‘It shouldn’t be happening’

Naomi Shrimpton, headteacher of Heathlands Primary Academy in Bournemouth, has weekly visits from the school improvement adviser of Ocean Learning Trust, the four-primary MAT to which her school belongs.

“But the chief executive’s office is on my site,” she says. “So I see him almost daily. He’ll say, ‘I’ve seen this happening at one of the other schools - do you want to try that?’ It’s definitely a partnership; a supporting process, rather than a critical eye.”

Meanwhile, Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), a 66-academy trust, does not conduct internal inspections at all. But the chain is not prepared to say why.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, would prefer all MATs to follow AET’s example. “Internal inspections stress teachers out,” she says. “Ofsted’s bad enough. But, if you recreate Ofsted within your own MAT, it becomes incredibly stressed and it takes the focus away from teaching and learning. It’s bad practice, it’s increasing workload, and it shouldn’t be happening.”

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has also criticised the practice of carrying out internal inspections, either alongside or in preparation for the watchdog’s visit.

Speaking at the Association of School and College Leaders annual conference earlier this spring, Spielman said: “When school finances are under pressure and workloads are high, running ‘mocksteds’ is an unacceptable waste of staff time and scarce pupil funding.”

Ofsted has made it clear this concern applies to inspections run by MATs as well as schools.

Ruth Coombs saw first-hand the duplication caused by dual inspections. “Generally speaking, Ofsted and Oasis were saying the same things,” she says.


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