“Academisation”, Ofsted and Multi-Academy Trusts

“Academisation” and the growth of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) have not been straightforward. In a guest post Lee Coley, of Stone King LLP, notes some of the implications for Church of England schools

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Ofsted’s letter of 21 May 2015 to the Chief Executive of CfBT Schools Trust (an offshoot of the CfBT Education Trust, itself formerly the Centre for British Teachers: hence the acronym), was made public on 11 September. Following its publication, the qualitative assessment of CfBT’s rapid growth is interesting to note. What is particularly interesting is the critical approach Ofsted has taken to commenting on the overall strategy of CfBT, a strategy undoubtedly condoned by the Department for Education (DfE) through the fact of the number of conversions into CfBT.

Whilst Ofsted is required under its Framework to comment on leadership and governance, the Framework is worded as being an assessment of those aspects vis-à-vis the individual school being inspected. It is not a statutory framework phrased to focus on a multi-academy trust (MAT) first and then on its schools. Any assessment of the MAT is a consequence of inspecting the school.

The Secretary of State’s letter of 22 January 2015 to Sir Michael Wilshaw, HM Chief Inspector, addresses the question of inspection of MATs partially flowing out of the Commons Education Committee’s Fourth Report: Academies and Free Schools published on 21 January 2015. The conclusion is that the existing statutory framework for Ofsted is sufficient to draw conclusions on MATs following focused inspections on groups of schools within it. What this letter demonstrates in part is an attempt to link together the DfE’s and Regional Schools Commissioners’ roles with that of Ofsted in terms of MATs and sponsor performance to avoid the sort of MAT failures the Select Committee was clearly worried about.

Ofsted’s desire to scrutinise MATs within the existing statutory framework is clearly at odds with the Select Committee’s findings about Ofsted and Academy Chains. Whilst Ofsted has the power under the new Common Inspection Framework to make a judgment on the effectiveness of leadership and management, it is questionable whether this could extend to a more detailed overview of services provided by the central MAT team and the strategy of the directors. So:

  • Is an assessment of overall strategy and the geography of schools within a MAT a matter that Ofsted is empowered to consider when determining the effectiveness of an academy at a local level?
  • Should such factors be relevant when assessing an academy?
  • Does Ofsted have the expertise to assess the corporate strategy of large MATs?

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s position, the inspection of MATs from a MAT perspective as opposed to from an individual academy perspective will follow either incrementally by an extension of the type of comments and assessment made of CfBT or through a change in the Framework. At a time when the number of conversions is slowing and evidence is being put forward that academies are not the educational panacea the Government hoped they would be [see the Education Committee’s Fourth Report at 66] the success of existing MATs will be crucial to the long term success of the academy policy. This will necessarily mean a greater scrutiny of MATs by the media and by Government which, in view of the wider centralisation policy behind academisation, will lead to detailed assessment of the strategy and structures within a MAT. This seems somewhat at odds with the initial laissez faire expectations when the Academies Bill was introduced into Parliament in 2010.

This is obviously going to affect Church of England MATs and will be of more significance and importance for MATs set up by Diocesan Boards of Education. Whilst the questions posed by Ofsted to Church of England MATs will largely be the same as to other MATs, the reputational implications flowing from criticisms of strategy, resourcing and approach are different. This will have to be carefully managed and a balance struck between recognising the opportunity that academisation brings to the local and national Church and the risk of engaging with it proactively.

Lee Coley

Cite this article as: Lee Coley, “Ofsted and Multi-Academy Trusts” in Law & Religion UK, 16 October 2015, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2015/10/16/academisation-ofsted-and-multi-academy-trusts/

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