England’s largest multi-academy trust is failing too many pupils, with “mediocre” secondary academies, unacceptably low attendance and poor children doing particularly badly, Ofsted has warned.
Following a focused inspection of some of Academies Enterprise Trust’s 67 schools last November, the inspectorate has published a highly critical letter describing the trust’s performance and progress.
The AET’s boss, Ian Comfort has challenged the letter, claiming it fails to reflect the trust’s “success stories” and presents a negative image of its schools despite “positive” feedback from inspectors following their visits.
It follows a period of significant change for AET, which last year offloaded eight of its schools after saying they were “geographically isolated”. The government has expressed concerns about the rate of the trust’s expansion, and in 2014 barred it from taking over any more schools.
In his letter, Ofsted’s regional director for the east of England, Andrew Cook said 40 per cent of AET pupils attended primary schools that “do not provide a good standard of education”, adding that the situation was “even worse” at secondary, with 47 per cent at schools rated less than good.
Mr Cook said the progress of disadvantaged pupils lagged behind at both primary and secondary level, and gaps in performance were “not narrowing quickly enough”.
He added: “The performance of AET’s secondary academies is mediocre and has not improved enough since the previous focused inspections in June 2014. Only 41 per cent of AET secondary academies are good or better and the trust’s impact on raising standards at key stage 4 has not been effective.”
Although he accepted standards at key stage 2 were rising, Mr Cook warned that with 69 per cent of good or better primary academies, AET was still well below the national average. He said efforts to tackle weak leadership in secondary schools had had a limited impact.
Speaking to Schools Week, Mr Comfort said “generally quite positive” feedback had been “turned into far more negative statements” in the letter.
He said: “At the front there appear to be just soundbites that are there necessarily to be quite negative about the trust and we fail to understand that. I think the absence of a framework allows that sort of thing to happen really.”
Mr Comfort pointed out that the proportion of academies judged to be good or better had risen from 32 per cent to 64 per cent during his two years heading the trust. He said one of AET’s main successes was reducing the proportion of schools in a “category of concern” from 29 per cent to 6 per cent.
He added: “No, we haven’t moved them all to ‘good’, but we’ve moved them out of that category. If you look at the data about the progress of the trust over the period, it’s actually moved our scores a considerable distance.”
Mr Comfort said the number of schools the trust controlled was manageable.
He also said the reason that improvement at AET was not as rapid as at rival trusts such as Ark, which has 83 per cent good or outstanding schools, was linked to the state its schools were in when taken on.
He said: “I think it’s the starting point for many of our schools. Considerably more of the academies that we took on were in a category of concern prior to taking them on.”
UPDATE, 10.18am: The Department for Education has issued a strongly-worded statement, in which it pledges “further action” against AET if it cannot show how it will address the issues identified by Ofsted.
A spokesperson said: “While Ofsted’s findings show that AET has made some progress, particularly in its primary academies, the trust is letting down too many of its pupils.
“The academies system allows us to spot and intervene in underperformance far more quickly than in council-run schools. AET must now show us how they will address the issues identified by Ofsted and we are working with them to raise standards. If we are not satisfied we will take further action.”