School inspections don’t hold MATs ‘sufficiently accountable’, says Ofsted

New report says inspections also don’t allow trusts to get credit, despite their growing influence over schools' quality of education

New report says inspections also don’t allow trusts to get credit, despite their growing influence over schools' quality of education

25 Apr 2023, 11:47

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New Ofsted research looks at the role of MATs in inspections

Ofsted‘s current inspection model does not hold multi-academy trusts (MATs) “sufficiently accountable” or attribute enough credit to their work, a new report from the watchdog has found.

The inspectorate currently only has legal powers to inspect at school-level, despite it placing repeated pressure on the government to extend this to trusts.

But the new research – which looked at inspections of trust schools, and took in the views of HMIs and trust leaders – found that this often caused “frustration” for both parties, with trusts’ role in inspections often “unclear”.

It also shows the influence of MATs in the key judgment areas schools are evaluated on has increased over recent years.

Responses were taken from a survey of 105 HMIs who had recently inspected schools within trusts, as well as 11 interviews with trust CEOs or their representatives.

Below are the key findings from the report.

1. School inspections can leave MAT role ‘unclear’

Responses from both leaders and inspectors highlighted that school inspections do not “hold the trust sufficiently accountable or attribute enough credit to the trust’s work”.

They also found Ofsted’s legal requirement to inspect the school and not the trust “problematic”.

The school inspection handbook notes inspections aim to acknowledge that trusts are “one entity” and that “leaders and managers of the MAT are responsible for the quality of education provided in all [its] schools”.

But some trust leaders, including CEOs, expressed “frustration” that inspections separated the leadership and management of the school from the trust.

2. Trust impact not ‘routinely discussed’

The views of trust leaders are routinely sought by inspectors, and the impact of their decisions is to “some extent” shown in school inspection judgments, the report found.

But inspectors said that while they could identify “at least some” of the wider impact of MATs on school improvement, “this was not routinely discussed as part of the inspection process”.

Some trust leaders told Ofsted that how much they were involved in inspection activities “depended on the individual inspector” and that they wanted to be more involved, with a “greater opportunity” to discuss their role.

3. Trusts want more focus on their role …

Inspectors said they could “identify” where strengths or weaknesses in a school are “attributable to the trust”.

But the need to focus reports on individual schools can “make it difficult” to include such issues.

Trust leaders, meanwhile, wanted reports to “better reflect” the extent to which MATs are involved in school improvement, and to be held accountable when schools are not doing so well.

4. … but inspectors have just 30 mins with trust leaders

The research found that typical discussions with trust leaders during school inspections lasted for a maximum of 30 minutes.

A lack of time was also found to be the “greatest barrier to fully exploring where trusts’ involvement in their schools was relevant to school inspection judgments”.

A “common view” from both trusts and inspectors, was that the lack of time during two-day inspections meant inspectors could not “explore in detail the work, influence and impact of the trust”.

5. Trust influence is growing

However the analysis shows the influence of trusts on the quality of education at their schools in growing.

A previous investigation published by the watchdog in 2019 found the trusts it considered had little involvement in overseeing this aspect of schools’ work.

Yet trusts who spoke to Ofsted for its latest research said they were always involved in designing the curriculum to some extent.

Inspectors also said that curriculum design was the area in which they “most easily see the influence of the trust on the school”.

They were also said to explore the role of MATs in schools’ behaviour and attendance policies, as well as trust-level extra-curricular and development opportunities and resources.

According to the report, inspectors identified that aims and ambitions for the personal development of pupils were often set by the trust.

But it acknowledged that other trust-level work, such as the employment of family liaison officers, could not be “recognised publicly” through school-level inspections.

6. But Ofsted makes no recommendations

Despite previously calling for extra powers to inspect trusts, Ofsted made no recommendations off the back of its latest report.

Leaders’ union ASCL, however, has reiterated its call for the Department for Education (DfE) to fund Ofsted pilot trust inspections.

This would “help establish whether a single set of standards can work equally well for trusts of different sizes, and how such inspections might sit alongside or replace school inspections”, said its inspection specialist Tom Middlehurst.

In the terms of reference for its academy regulatory and commissioning review, the government said it would “consider the role of inspection as a regulatory tool”, including “trust inspection, and the potential impact of this on school-level inspection”.

However, the outcome report, published in late March, only referred to the current system of school inspections and MAT summary evaluations, rather than pledging any movement on trust inspection.

Schools Week understands the issue was kicked down the road as a result of a lack of Parliamentary time before the next election to pass the legislation required. 

The DfE was contacted for comment.

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