Has Ofsted found the weak link in academy chains?

19th February 2016 at 00:00
The watchdog has given its verdict on nine and found eight wanting – but its approach has been questioned

Concerns over standards at two of England’s biggest academy chains have hit the headlines this month.

Ofsted has demanded that the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) and E-Act, which run 90 academies in total, take urgent action to improve the quality of education they offer.

But some multi-academy trusts (MATs) argue that the method the inspectorate is using to judge them is fundamentally flawed. Here’s what you need to know.

Why has this story emerged now?

Because of two highly critical letters from Ofsted on the performance of AET and E-Act. The watchdog condemned the standards of education on offer in AET’s schools, stating that it was “failing too many pupils”. Students from poor backgrounds did “particularly badly”, the watchdog said, and attendance levels were “unacceptably low”.

Similarly, the inspectorate branded standards at E-Act’s secondary schools as “too low”, while pointing out that the performance of pupils from poorer backgrounds was a “serious area of concern”.

How have the two chains responded?

E-Act took it on the chin. The chain said that while it was pleased Ofsted had recognised progress in its primary schools, it accepted that “performance needs to improve in our secondary academies”.

But AET – England’s largest MAT – hit back strongly at the second critical letter it has received from Ofsted in less than two years.

Ian Comfort, AET’s chief executive, said that the trust’s schools were improving and that the inspectorate had only visited a small proportion of them. Ofsted’s findings were based on inspections of seven academies run by the 67-school chain and phone calls with the headteachers of 18 others.

Mr Comfort questioned “the tone” of the Ofsted letter and told TES that he wanted a better process for judging academy chains.

Have any other chains spoken out about the way that Ofsted judges them?

Yes. Back in June, Oasis said that it had “serious questions” over whether Ofsted’s reports properly reflected the work that it was doing on the ground.

Has Ofsted defended itself?

Sir Michael Wilshaw has told MPs that he knew of Oasis’ misgivings, but that he felt Ofsted was “fair”. The approach used to scrutinise MATs was the same as for local authorities, he said.

“It is remarkable that in the MATs that we have inspected, we have identified schools that have declined since they have been taken over,” Sir Michael added.

How does Ofsted inspect academy chains?

It carries out “focused inspections”. When several academies within a trust are due an inspection, Ofsted will conduct them at the same time and arrange telephone conversations with principals of some of the remaining academies in the MAT. The inspectorate will also speak to staff employed centrally by the trust to gauge the level of support provided to schools. Ofsted then publishes a “summary of findings” in a letter.

Does Ofsted think its powers are sufficient?

Not entirely. Sir Michael has been pushing ministers for full inspection powers over MATs for years. The current limited system was not approved by education secretary Nicky Morgan until January 2015. In September, Sir Michael told MPs that the format was “working well” but that he still wanted stronger legal powers to visit MATs in case a chain ever tried to block Ofsted.

How many MATs has Ofsted judged?

Nine (see box, left); the watchdog’s verdict has been critical in all but one of the cases. But some of the most prominent sponsors in the country, such as Ark, Harris and Reach2, have yet to be judged.

How does Ofsted decide which academy chains to inspect?

The inspectorate told TES that the decision was guided by an analysis of performance data, along with other factors such as inspection outcomes and complaints.

It will “carry out inspections of MATs where there are concerns about academies’ performance within a trust” and also “where there is evidence of strong performance within a trust so that good practice can be shared”.

Another key factor is whether or not a chain has several individual academy inspections due at around the same time.

Why has the government been reluctant to allow Ofsted to make full inspections of MATs?

When Ms Morgan approved the current system, she said that she was eager to avoid overall “binary” judgements on the effectiveness of academy chains. Previously, schools minister Lord Nash and former education secretary Michael Gove have both said that they actively wanted to avoid an added layer of bureaucracy that could potentially stifle the academies programme.

There are also understood to have been concerns within government that Ofsted should focus on the performance of actual schools, question marks over whether its inspectors are qualified to judge corporate organisations and a feeling that nascent academy chains ought to be nurtured rather than exposed.


Academy chain verdicts

E-Act – February 2016 “Not good enough.”

AET – February 2016 (and June 2014) “The trust is failing too many students”

The Education Fellowship – October 2015 “There is no clear record of improvement and standards…are unacceptably variable.”

CfBT – September 2015 “CfBT took on too many academies too quickly. As a result, standards are too low.”

Wakefield City Academies Trust – July 2015 “WCAT is making a positive difference.”

Collaborative Academies Trust – July 2015 “Too many academies have not improved since joining the trust.”

Oasis – June 2015 “A legacy of weak challenge and insufficiently rigorous improvement has resulted in little improvement for nearly half the academies.”

School Partnership Trust Academies – October 2014 “The percentage of good and better schools is significantly below that seen nationally.”

The Kemnal Academies Trust – July 2014 “The chain has not been wholly successful in substantially improving the effectiveness of its academies.”

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