We must begin academy chain inspections


The government must now act to give Ofsted the powers to inspect academy chains, says SecEd editor Pete Henshaw.

The critical Ofsted report after the inspection of 12 schools within the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) is the final straw.

With a majority of England’s secondary schools now academies and with many of these institutions under the control of an academy chain, it is imperative that Ofsted has the powers to inspect these wider organisations.

This is not a debate about the merits of Ofsted. Whatever your view of England’s inspectorate (and how it conducts its inspection regime), we cannot justify having a system whereby individual schools, not to mention entire local authorities, are opened up to severe scrutiny, yet academy chains, which have such an influence on the quality of so many of England’s schools, escape the inspector’s eye completely.

The AET has 77 schools within its trust, but earlier this year was told by the Department for Education (DfE) that it could not take on any more schools. 

Ofsted carried out its targeted inspection of 12 AET schools because of “concerns about the performance of individual AET academies”.

It found that six of the 12 were judged to be “good”, five “require improvement” and one is “inadequate”. Ofsted inspectors were critical of the quality of teaching in many of the schools, “low expectations” of pupils, and poor governance.

Of course, at SecEd, we view inspection outcomes for what they are – a snapshot judgement on a school. As such, I do not seek to attack the AET schools found wanting in this report, or indeed their staff, who I am sure are working their hardest to tackle the challenges they face.

However, there is a wider issue here. Ofsted’s report was striking because it included a survey of the leadership of the 12 schools. It found that the leaders did not understand AET’s long-term plan for improvement across its schools, some leaders felt isolated from AET and, perhaps most damning, “leaders did not have confidence in the Trust’s ability to provide the support they needed and were seeking help from other sources”.

Ofsted’s letter states: “AET has not provided effective support to all its academies. The rapid expansion of the Trust and a lack of strategic leadership have hindered improvement.”

The whole point of academy takeover, we have been told again and again, is to improve schools and raise outcomes for children. If schools within a trust are actively going elsewhere for this support then this raises important questions.

For its part, the AET has said that the inspection of these 12 schools “does not give the true picture of progress across our 77 academies”. It has also raised with Ofsted issues about the interpretation of the data and “potential errors of fact”.

A statement said: “In particular, we are concerned that the letter intended to summarise the 12 targeted inspections places an unfairly negative slant on the more balanced assessments in the reports themselves.

“Many of the academies inspected by Ofsted have a history of underperformance and have been with AET only for a short time. Turning a school around takes time, but we are acting to ensure a rapid and sustained improvement in these academies.”

The AET has a point. A judgement has been made about this organisation based on the inspection of 12 out of 77 schools. Whether that judgement is accurate or not, it seems unfair on the other 65 schools. But then again, Ofsted’s actions are fully justified. The AET has been allowed to expand incredibly rapidly by the DfE and Ofsted has raised vitally important issues about academy governance and the way that chains should operate. Its findings must lead ministers to reconsider the rate at which they allow academy chains to expand.

However, the simple solution to all of this is to give Ofsted the power to properly inspect entire academy chains, as they already do with local authorities. Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw himself has gone on record saying he should be given these powers, but it seems that for some reason there is a great reluctance among our education ministers to allow England’s schools watchdog to shine its light onto the academy chains of this country.


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