The roll-out of trust-level inspections will need to be carefully calibrated with the wider system’s shift towards more schools being part of MATs, writes Steve Rollett.
Amid plentiful commentary of late about inspection reform, one area that has received little attention is the inspection of multi-academy trusts.
This is surprising as the DfE’s recent regulatory and commissioning review was tasked with considering the role for trust-level inspection, but produced a final report that was pretty much silent on the issue.
While Ofsted can currently carry out Multi-Academy Trust Summary Evaluations (MATSE), these are effectively an aggregation of routine school-level inspections rather than an inspection of the trust as an entity. And they only do around 12 of these each year.
Ofsted’s own desire to inspect trusts is clear. Its 2022 annual report stated: “We strongly believe, as we have for some time, that routine inspection of trusts must have a significant role to play in trust regulation.”
And just yesterday, the inspectorate published a report on the involvement of trusts in inspection, stating that “trust leaders and inspectors highlighted that inspection at school level does not hold the trust sufficiently accountable or attribute enough credit to the trust’s work”.
In a system where most or all schools are part of trusts, routine trust inspection seems logical and inevitable. After all, trusts are legally responsible for what happens in their schools.
‘Trusts are not some external improvement agency’
There is also a growing recognition that trusts are not some sort of external school improvement agency or “middle tier” organisation; a trust is its schools, and the schools are the trust.
This is the case legally, but also increasingly in terms of practice. For example, trusts are thinking about a range of issues, from curriculum to training to recruitment as a whole, with decisions and effective approaches being shared across the group.
In this scenario, trust-level inspection is potentially better able to assess how schools are being run and to identify strengths and weaknesses, especially in leadership and governance.
However, it is less straightforward in our half-reformed system. A significant barrier at the current time is the potential confusion that could be created by having school-level and trust-level judgements existing side by side.
And it would most likely add to the workload problems that schools and trusts already face.
In a reformed system, however, we might adopt the approach of the Netherlands, in which the trust equivalent is inspected, with some of its schools sampled as part of the process.
This would mean that routine school-level judgements would cease to exist as we have them now. Such an approach could take some of the pressure of inspection off individual headteachers and teachers.
‘Inspection workforce will take time to grow’
But is this palatable in the English system, particularly for parents and politicians who are used to seeing each school inspected and judged on a routine basis? One suspects this would not be easy to land – not impossible, but not easy.
Apart from shifting expectations, it would require change to primary legislation which currently positions inspection solely at the level of the school.
It would also require an inspection workforce with the experience and expertise to investigate and understand how trusts operate. This would take time to grow.
Trust inspections are therefore likely to be a few years away yet, and the first crucial step on the road to introducing them is to calibrate their roll-out with the pace and nature of the move towards a fully reformed system.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to ensure trust-level inspection does not replicate the all-too-familiar problems with school-level inspection.
One way to avoid this is to ensure any system of inspection is built on strong evidence about what works in trusts and what parts of this can be inspected with validity and reliability, without driving unintended consequences.
The good news is that there is time for the government, Ofsted and others to invest in a programme of research now. Because what matters most is that, if it gets done, it gets done well.