How long can the DfE stay neutral in Ofsted v the MATs?

High profile academy chain leaders renewed attack on Ofsted's new inspections puts pressure on the department to act

Ed Dorrell

The DfE faces pressure to act on the Ofsted v MATs row.

The row between Ofsted and some of the country’s biggest multi-academy trusts over the inspectorate’s new framework had quietened.

Rumours circulating around the Westminster bubble suggested that the scrap – which ignited last month when the chief executives of Harris and Outwood Grange launched an unexpected attack on Ofsted – would be brought to a close after peace talks convened by the Department for Education.

But then came a damning report, published on Tuesday, into the inspection framework from influential right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange – and the surprise publication of a statement from the Mat CEOs (this time joined by Inspiration Trust’s influential boss Rachel de Souza) throwing their support behind it.

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The statement pulled no punches, demanding that the framework be rewritten, reiterating the position they had taken when the row first hit the headlines: that the new-style inspections unfairly penalises successful schools working in the toughest circumstances.

"In particular, we believe that the framework disadvantages poorer pupils. The report recommends that Ofsted should delete the element of its framework that penalises schools with a two-year Key Stage three, and make wider modifications to be consistent with education statute and DfE guidance.  

“Ofsted has said it has no preference about the length of the key stages, but the content of its new framework puts inspectors in an impossible position.”

The content of this statement did not in fact say anything different from the CEOs’ original complaint, but the timing was very surprising given the concerted efforts by the DfE and even Downing Street to broker peace — or, at the very least, make the row go away. 

I understand that Ofsted was taken aback by the intervention, and ministers were surprised too. They believed that all parties shared an ambition that the dispute be resolved behind closed doors.

All of which leads us to where next? Both sides still want resolution, but, equally, neither are prepared to give ground.

Behind the scenes Ofsted is more determined than ever not to re-write the inspection framework or the accompanying handbook – and the statement on Wednesday from the Mats makes it clear that they are not for turning either.

It increasingly looks likely that the DfE is going to have to make a formal intervention if they want to stop this story hitting the headlines again and again.

But whose side will they come down on? The option of neutrality is no longer open to them.

I would expect something in this area to happen in the coming days.

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Ed Dorrell

Ed Dorrell

Ed Dorrell is deputy editor and head of content at the TES, former features and comment editor and former news editor. 

Find me on Twitter @Ed_Dorrell

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