Biggest academy chain faces another Ofsted inquiry

4th December 2015 at 00:00
Ofsted inspects AET
Focused inspection on AET comes as watchdog warns that academies are no panacea for improving education

England’s biggest academy sponsor has been put through its second major Ofsted inspection in 18 months amid concerns about declining GCSE results, TES has learned.

It has emerged that the situation at the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), which runs 68 schools throughout the country, has become so serious that representatives from the Department for Education now sit in on the trust’s board meetings.

The government has said in the past that it makes such a move if it has “concerns” about an academy chain. Now, Ofsted has conducted its own investigation into AET’s performance with a special two-week “focused inspection”.

Provisional GCSE results from the summer show that performance at 17 of AET’s 30 secondary academies has fallen this year.

The figures, which could change after re-marks, mean that half the secondaries have dropped below the government’s 40 per cent floor target of pupils gaining five good GCSEs, including English and maths.

The news is worrying for ministers, who desperately need reliable academy sponsors as they seek to complete the academisation of England’s schools system.


Academies ‘need support’

Teaching unions have predicted that a lack of sponsors could mean academies having to survive alone. This week’s Ofsted annual report warned that stand-alone academies were more likely to decline in performance than those in chains.

However, at one AET school, Sir Herbert Leon Academy in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, the proportion of pupils getting at least five good GCSEs, including English and maths, dropped from 49 per cent in 2013 to 25 per cent in 2014 and to 18 per cent in 2015.

The academy chain received a “pre-warning” letter about the school’s performance from a regional schools commissioner in December last year because of its “unacceptably low” exam results.

Last week, Ofsted carried out a focused inspection on AET that included a visit to the trust’s Essex headquarters and seven of its schools.

And on Tuesday, the watchdog’s chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, warned that academies could “only do so much” in improving the education system, and were not the only solution to raising standards.

“Academies, like all schools, work if they have good leaders and good teaching,” he said, launching Ofsted’s annual report. “If they lack them, they do not.”

The Education and Adoption Bill – which is currently making its way through Parliament – will “remove bureaucratic and legal loopholes” that slow up the process of turning failing schools into academies. And a new Green Paper expected to be published in the new year could pave the way for all schools to become academies by 2020.


Chain ‘went for growth’

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teachers’ union, said that AET had “gone for growth” too quickly and that its academies were spread too widely across the country.

“Because of this, they are unable to provide the support that their schools need,” she said. “It is an open secret that there is going to be a new bill in the new year that will turn all schools into academies. But with a dearth of good and outstanding sponsors to create chains, we are going to end up with schools in isolation.”

She welcomed increased scrutiny of chains by Ofsted, saying that they should not be treated differently from local authorities.

An AET spokesman confirmed that there had been “a focused inspection of our trust over the past two weeks”.

“We agreed that Ofsted could undertake the inspection, which will identify areas of strength and areas for development,” he said.

The spokesman added that the GCSE results for AET schools this summer were “stable”, with 43 per cent of pupils achieving A* to C, including English and maths, the same as in 2014.

“A welcome increase in the proportion of pupils getting a grade C or above in maths was offset by a lower proportion of pupils getting a C or above in English,” he said.

“We have further boosted specialist support in English, and schools are anticipating that this will feed through to improved results in 2016.”

Ofsted confirmed that the inspection had taken place. A spokeswoman said that she would not elaborate on why the watchdog had decided to carry out the investigation now, and added that AET would receive its result in the new year.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Where we have concerns about the performance of a school or trust, we have demonstrated that we will not hesitate to take swift action.

“We are working with Academies Enterprise Trust to address our concerns and ensure that improvements are being made across all schools in the trust.”


Timeline: Academies Enterprise Trust

March 2014: Ministers reveal that AET is one of 14 academy chains barred from expanding.

June 2014: Ofsted inspects AET, which at the time has 77 academies.

September 2014: Ofsted says that “too many pupils” at the chain’s schools are not given a good enough education. The inspectorate further suggests that AET has expanded too quickly and the performance of too many schools has suffered as a result.

October 2014: AET receives a “financial notice to improve” from the Education Funding Agency, because of concerns about the management of its finances.

July 2015: It is revealed that AET – which now runs 68 schools – has received 14 “pre-warning” letters for its schools since 2012, more than any other sponsor. The letters from regional schools commissioners warn that their funding agreement will end if standards do not improve.

November 2015: Ofsted carries out a “focused inspection” of AET.


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