Just how powerful are the country’s academy chains? They have swiftly grown up over the past decade – without any real public debate – to a point where, for good or ill, they dominate a large part of our state schools system.
They brought in fresh energy and a commitment to education in the toughest areas, their advocates would argue. But along the way, these opaque organisations also sucked out the school autonomy that the academies movement was originally sold on.
The ability of multi-academy trusts (MATs) to exert complete control over their schools (if they choose to) is now beyond doubt.
But does the real writ of these new powers in the land run even further? Are they answerable to higher authorities? Or do MATs also possess the soft power they need to get their own way over those that are supposed to regulate them?
We are about to find out.
Analysis: Have Ofsted's problems only just begun?
MAT leaders: New inspections favour middle-class kids
The watchdog has been sending out the message that it has concerns about three-year GCSE courses since 2017. And now it has acted on those concerns by criticising schools with a “narrowed” key stage 3 in its new curriculum-focused inspections.
Challenging the authority of Ofsted
In response, the big academy chains have pulled no punches – claiming Ofsted’s new regime is "a middle-class framework for middle-class kids”.
So what should Ofsted do now? Chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s former right-hand man, Luke Tryl, weighed in with a fierce response that accused the MATs of “gross intellectual snobbery” and said that the new inspections were needed to stop academy chains “gaming and inflating their league table positions”.
One view, privately expressed, is that Ofsted’s leadership has no choice but to hold the line on such an important point. But others within the inspectorate think there is a need to reconsider whether it has got it right on three-year GCSEs.
Is it really worth going to war over one aspect of its new regime when the inspectorate has got so much else on its plate?
The instinct may be to try to fudge the issue. A blog by Ofsted’s national director for education, Sean Harford, published just two days before the MATs’ intervention, sent out a decidedly mixed message.
He warned against schools stretching GCSE teaching over three years but also insisted that Ofsted did not have a preferred length of key stage 3 and would not automatically mark schools down who shortened it.
Maybe he knew what was coming. But a fudge may not cut it. Ofsted has already publicly rebuked schools where KS3 pupils “do not study a broad enough range of subjects”. So we ought to be able to see which way the inspectorate jumps by examining future reports. Any confusion would only open up a whole new problem as schools must be clear on what they’re being judged on.
But if Ofsted does cave in then the implications are enormous. Some may see this as a problem of the watchdog's own making. Nevertheless, Ofsted is the regulator. How can it possibly do its job properly if the schools and trusts it is supposed to be regulating are suddenly in a position where they are calling the shots?