Make sure that you don’t mix up peer review with inspection, but do ensure that both are effective, valid and reliable, says Leora Cruddas

I was interested to read “Three things the government must do to better support MATs”, Michael Pain’s recent article in Schools Week in which he talks about a reformed inspectorate and suggests peer review as the way to hold multi-academy trusts accountable.

Peer review should not be in the public domain

It seems that there is growing confusion about the role of inspection versus peer review. The two are not interchangeable!

Inspection
Inspection is a key part of the accountability system of schools in England. As schools are publicly funded organisations, it is right that school leaders and governing boards give an account of their actions and decisions to an independent inspectorate to ensure good outcomes for all children and young people.

The inspectorate should be independent of the profession and the government. It should reach conclusions about the effectiveness of a school or group of schools, a responsibility that it exercises primarily on behalf of parents and children and young people.

The inspectorate’s primary function should be to evaluate the outcomes and assess how school leaders account for these. It is not an improvement agency. It should not focus on development.

Peer review
Peer review is one of a range of quality assurance mechanisms that school leaders can use. It is the mechanism by which the system improves itself. It is an improvement tool. And it should focus on development.

Peer review could be the process whereby a school or trust leader invites a trusted peer to look carefully at the thing they are most worried about. To the extent that peer review is an improvement tool, it should not be in the public domain – and never part of a public accountability framework.

It is only when quality assurance is strong and schools (and trusts) begin to hold each other to account in valid and reliable ways that the system will be self-improving.

How should multi-academy trusts be regulated?
The education secretary Damian Hinds recently announced that he would develop proposals for the assessment of multi-academy trusts.
My organisation, the Confederation of School Trusts, is developing specific proposals on how to do this.

As a principle, inspection is not the same as assessment. We do not believe that an additional layer of inspection is necessary. To answer the question of whether the assessment of multi-academy trusts is necessary, we need to go back to first principles: what is the problem we are trying to solve?

First, we need to get ahead of problems. There are a small number of MATs with financial and governance problems, for example relating to related- party transactions or other irregularities. We must be on top of these. We must make sure public money is spent the way that parliament intends.

Second, we need to make sure that trusts are strong and sustainable organisations – particularly when they are asked to take on schools in more challenging circumstances.
We need to make sure that they have the capacity to support the schools in their group.

The way forward
We cannot and must not confuse the roles of inspection and peer review. We must, however, ensure that both are effective, valid and reliable.

The inspectorate should be lean, efficient, effective and proportionate. It should give parents information about the quality of education in schools.

Peer review should be rigorous, impartial and focused on improvement. It should concentrate on areas in a school or trust that need improvement.

The test of peer review is ultimately the way in which it impacts positively on improving teaching and learning and outcomes for pupils. We already have strong, working models of peer review.

Put simply inspection “proves”. Peer review “improves”.

Let’s not muddle the two.