The Commons education select committee continued with its inquiry into multi-academy trusts today, prompting questions over the government’s policy to expand the number of academies.
Here is what we learned from today’s hearing:
- Ofsted ‘ill-equipped’
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis, an academy chain with 47 academies in England, was particularly scathing about Ofsted’s ability to inspect academy trusts. Rev Chalke branded the inspectors as “utterly incompetent” when it came to inspecting chains. And he added that Ofsted inspectors “did not have the skills” to inspect a complex charitable organisation and did not understand governance in the charitable sector.
- Not enough evidence
The panel of researchers giving evidence does not believe there is enough evidence to support the government’s push to eventually convert all schools into academies. Karen Wespieser, senior research manager at the National Foundation for Educational Research, said the plans to expand the number of MATs were “racing ahead of the evidence”.
- Collaboration 'lacking'
The process of academy conversion can divert “time and energy” away from the most important areas of a school, particularly school improvement, the committee heard. Dr Melanie Ehren, reader in educational accountability and improvement at UCL Institute of Education, warned that the level and quality of collaboration between schools within a MAT varied. She added that often collaboration was merely “copying and pasting” best practice from one school to the other with little consideration of each school’s context.
- Primary school challenges
The challenges faced by primary schools when it comes to converting to academy status are an area of particular concern for the panel. Joining a MAT is often difficult for small primaries in remote locations, panel members said, and they suggested the MAT was not necessarily the best model for primary schools. Natalie Perera, executive director of the Education Policy Institute, said the local education authority model worked well for primary schools. There were also concerns over the number and quality of MATs in the North of the country for primaries to join.
- Happy teachers
The panel was asked what criteria should be used by the government as a “health check” to ascertain whether a MAT should be allowed to expand or not. Various accountability measures were suggested, such as Ofsted inspections, progress and attainment measures, and even looking at the number of schools it already has. But Professor Merryn Hutchings, author of the "Chain Effects" report published by the Sutton Trust, suggested the government should check how happy the teachers were working in a chain as part of any health check.
In giving evidence, the panel raised concerns over the level of oversight of the academy system. In response to the question of whether the Department for Education and the Education Funding Agency had the capacity to deal with the expansion of the academies programme, Prof Hutchings said: “Probably not." She also raised fears that there were too few regional schools commissioners and their jurisdictions were too big for them to offer sufficient oversight.
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