Ofsted picks up pace on the road to inspection of MATs

Whilst it is currently legally impossible for Ofsted formally to inspect multi-academy trusts (as distinct from schools), it has now published Guidance formalising a process for publishing findings about MATs from “batched” inspections of their schools on a more routine basis.

In the Chief Inspector’s Annual Report 2018, Amanda Spielman stated that “One area where our inspection powers have not kept pace with changes in education is for multi-academy trusts”. She expressed frustration that “parents and government are missing out on information about an important part of the evolving educational landscape”.

Ofsted have acted on this to produce an “Operational note for inspectors” entitled Summary evaluations of multi academy trusts dated December 2018. This guidance supports “summary evaluations” of multi-academy trusts. Such an evaluation is clearly stated not to be an inspection and Ofsted instead just states that “at the end of the summary evaluation, we publish a letter setting out what inspectors have found.” In the Annual Report the stated purpose of this process is to “draw out common themes and give MAT leaders opportunity for reflection”.

There is a two staged methodology described:

Stage 1 – batched inspections: section 5 and section 8 inspections in a number of the MAT’s academies over a period of time, which is usually up to two terms (but can as short as a week). This implements the option of more routine evaluations of MATs rather than just emergency interventions.

Stage 2 – summary evaluation: once Ofsted has published the section 5 and section 8 inspection reports, Ofsted can carry out the MAT summary evaluation. Inspectors will meet the leaders of the MAT, trustees and visit other of the MAT’s individual academies.

MATs can decline to engage with the summary evaluation but presumably would be brave to do so if they wish to maintain goodwill with Ofsted and the DfE. Stage 2 “Discussions” will centre on:

  • “the quality of education across the MAT” and
  • “the MAT’s arrangements to oversee, challenge and support its academies.”

The “areas that inspectors will likely concentrate” include:

  • “the impact the trust has on its academies, including what elements of education are uniform across the trust, where the trust allows academies more autonomy and how the trust reduces underperformance;
  • how the trust monitors its academies, especially how it understands the quality of education being offered and its impact; and
  • how the MAT trustees work with the MAT leadership, including how they set priorities and how they constructively challenge leaders”.

The Guidance is at pains to state that it will not prescribe forms of governance for MATs: “Ofsted has no fixed view on what constitutes the best arrangement. Inspectors should therefore avoid advocating any particular structure or arrangement. However, inspectors should feel confident commenting on the effectiveness of the arrangements that are in place, based on the evidence they gather”. In doing so they will apparently have reference to the views on “checks and balances” in MAT governance set out in the DfE published Governance handbook: for academies published as long ago as 2015.

We are aware of MATs already being asked to engage in this new version of “summary evaluation”. Our concern is the capability of Ofsted inspectors actually to understand the complexities of MAT governance, especially when viewed in a snapshot of time. However there is an inexorable logic in moving towards MAT-wide Ofsted inspection and MATs should prepare their various layers of governance to be able to respond to such inspection in an integrated way.

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