In its new corporate strategy for the next five years, published today, the schools’ inspectorate states: “In the coming months, we will work with the Department for Education to develop new approaches and expertise to allow us to be better scrutinise education, training and care structures, including at the multi-academy trust level.”
Under existing legislation, Ofsted can conduct batch inspections of the schools that make up multi-academy trusts, but not the trusts themselves.
A change in the legislation would allow the watchdog to inspect MATs as it inspects local authorities, by observing MAT executives, looking at centralised data and attempting to establish whether the MAT is effectively providing the services it sets out to offer.
Luke Tryl, Ofsted’s director of corporate strategy, said: “There has been a huge amount of change in the structure of education, and actually inspection legislation hasn’t kept pace with some of the changes. Obviously, the big one there is MATs.
“We want to work with the DfE to look at how we can scrutinise multi-academy trusts.
“If decisions are being taken at a certain level of accountability, it probably makes sense to look more at that level of accountability.”
Stephen Rollett, inspections and accountability specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed that this would be a welcome step.
"Independent scrutiny of MATs seems appropriate within the context of our education system," he said. "They're large organisations, with a lot of public money going into them. So the principle that MATs should be accountable for that is sound."
In 2015, the serving education secretary, Nicky Morgan, told Ofsted that she would prefer it to continue to inspect multiple schools within a single MAT, rather than to inspect the MAT itself. Inspectors looking to form a judgement about a MAT would currently visit between 30 to 40 per cent of its schools, as well as interviewing trustees and staff.
"To formalise that, and add that extra clarity and transparency, is desirable," Mr Rollett said. "It's just about making sure that Ofsted reflects the educational landscape as it is now."
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said Ofsted should be able to inspect multi-academy trusts in the same way that local authorities are inspected, "in order to support accountability across all types of structures".
But Jon Chaloner, chief executive of GLF Schools multi-academy trust, said that he believed that MATs were already held to account by regional schools commissioners.
Nonetheless, he said he thought that MAT inspections were probably inevitable. "But I would be cautious about what inspections might look like," he said. "I'm not worried we might fail, but 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."