School improvement ‘failing’ at University of Chester Academies Trust, says Ofsted

School improvement 'failing' at University of Chester Academies Trust, says Ofsted

A university-backed academy trust has been criticised by Ofsted for failing in its school improvement strategies and “below average” standards in some of its schools.

Ofsted has warned that pupil progress is “not good enough”, particularly for disadvantaged pupils, and is also “weak” among the most able after inspecting three schools run by The University of Chester Academies Trust (UCAT).

The trust runs seven schools in the north of England and the midlands.

The disclosure comes at an awkward time for the government, which wants universities to commit to sponsoring or setting up new schools in exchange for freedom to charge their own higher fees.

As previously revealed by Schools Week, universities have a patchy record on school sponsorship, and the suitability of universities to drive school improvement has also been questioned by some in the sector.

The publication of the UCAT report comes less than a month after the government closed its consultation on the university plans.

Standards remain below average in two of the three primary and three of the four secondary academies

Although inspectors did accept that a focus by UCAT’s chief executive Linda Rowe on improving leadership and management is “beginning to bear fruit”, they highlighted the fact that just one of the trust’s schools has been judged good in a recent inspection, and none are outstanding.

In a letter to Rowe, inspector Margaret Farrow said improvement strategies developed in the trust’s first five years had “failed to deliver the necessary improvements in pupils’ outcomes, particularly in the secondary sector”.

Standards remain below average in two of the three primary and three of the four secondary academies, and improvements have been “unsustainable” because they were too dependent on temporary external support, Farrow said.

The trust has also been criticised over the number of pupils temporarily excluded from two of three of its academies, which Farrow said was “too high”.

Permanent exclusion rates at University Primary Academy Kidsgrove are also said to be “unacceptably high”, with inspectors expressing worries that this is “particularly the case for boys, disadvantaged pupils and pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities”.

“The governance responsibilities and accountabilities in the Trust are opaque,” Farrow added. “The trust did not publish any information about the scheme of delegation for governance on any of the individual academy websites.”

UCAT opened its first academy in 2009, and now has five sponsored academies, one converter and one free school in operation.

The trust is made up of three members from the University of Chester, alongside a board of directors, a chief executive and local governing bodies for each academy.

In 2015, Schools Week revealed that UCAT was one of several university-backed trusts to have withdrawn their sponsorship from academies. It had ended its relationship with two schools.

The trust withdrew from its co-sponsor role at the Winsford E-Act Academy and Ormskirk Bolingbroke Academy after it was barred by the Department for Education from taking on more schools in 2014. It had been criticised at the time for “unacceptably low” performance in three of its schools.

According to government statistics, there were 17 sponsored academy trusts established by universities with 38 schools as of October 1 last year. Only two are rated outstanding.

In a response to a written question from the former shadow education secretary Lucy Powell last month, the schools minister Nick Gibb said 11 of the schools sponsored by universities were good, while 13 require improvement and four are inadequate. At the time, 24 had not been visited since conversion or opening.

However the government has said more university involvement in schools will help boost social mobility, and highlighted examples such as King’s College London’s specialist sixth form college, and the University of Brighton, which works with five schools.

Ofsted said that UCAT should ensure development of “formal, targeted professional development opportunities through university departments and links with outstanding schools” in order to “capitalise on the high-quality resource available to improve provision and pupils’ outcomes”.

Trust bosses have also been urged to reduce absence rates and fixed-period and permanent exclusions and ensure strategic planning has “more measurable outcomes”.

A spokesperson for the trust said work to address Ofsted’s recommendations was “already underway”, including efforts by the university to provide “further targeted opportunities for professional development for teachers”.

“Principals have been working together to reduce absence rates and the number of exclusions across the trust and this was acknowledged in the recent inspection of one of UCAT’s academies

“The governance arrangements have already been reviewed and the trust is in the process of further refining its governance process.”