The debate around the accountability of multi-academy trusts has intensified in recent months, writes Michael Pain

As a handful of high-profile cases of failure hit the headlines, the calls for greater and more joined-up oversight of academy trusts have intensified. Indeed, just two days before MAT CEOs and trustees met for Forum Education’s most recent policy roundtable in January, MPs waded in to the debate, expressing their concerns over “a lack of transparency and accountability” in the system.

The timing couldn’t have been better for focusing minds.

After months of various public statements from Ofsted about its keenness for an enhanced role in the inspection of multi-academy trusts, CEOs from our four regional MAT Leaders networks came together to share their thoughts, ideas and suggestions with the inspectorate around what any potential inspection framework could look like.

First, the delegates felt that any inspection framework should carefully consider how the vision and overall strategy of a trust affects the classroom.

Does what is promised at the top translate into the realities of day-to-day classroom practice and the educational experiences of pupils? Is a trust genuinely using its autonomy in a way that best prepares children for the lives ahead of them, or are trusts’ plans merely a series of good intentions?

Does what is promised at the top translate into the realities of day to day classroom practice and the educational experiences of pupils?

It was also strongly felt that the quality of governance and the sustainability of the organisation’s school improvement model should come under close scrutiny.

Are the processes and capacity in place to ensure a trust is able to govern and deliver at the scale it envisages? Attendees were  keen to see trusts demonstrating that they were “employers of choice” – with clear strategies and indicators showing how they are attracting and holding onto employees across their schools.

Attendees also felt that the financial efficiency of a trust should come under review.

This would go beyond checking for compliance and balanced books – areas within the scrutiny of the ESFA – and ask whether trusts are maximising financial resources in a way that enhances children’s learning experiences and progress. In essence, does the promise of better economies of scale and sharing of resources across schools lead to improvements in outcomes for children rather than just better balance sheets?

The group was largely of the view that any MAT inspection framework should look at the trust’s relationship with its individual schools, including parents, staff, local communities and pupils’ perceptions of the trust. Individual schools should stay at the heart of their local communities, and MATs must ensure that this connection isn’t lost, particularly as they grow.

There were also a number of points made in relation to the format and delivery of inspection.

The group wanted Ofsted to give careful consideration to producing a framework that is developmental and supportive in approach, akin to the new short inspections of schools.

It was felt that the MAT inspection process should be about enabling a dialogue over time with Ofsted – with trusts required to prove how they are taking areas for improvement forward – rather than being a snapshot view of the MAT on any given week.

Any MAT inspection framework should strive to reflect principles that underpin successful outcomes

The group was also unanimous in their view that inspections should be led by existing practitioners.

This shouldn’t be limited to experienced CEOs and school improvement directors, but must involve people such as CFOs, finance directors and trustees. In developing any framework, Ofsted should also look to other sectors and the work of organisations such as NHS Improvement and the ICSA governance institute.

Finally, the group was adamant that Ofsted must not seek to develop a framework that defines what best practice is, or look to label MATs with gradings such as ‘outstanding’.

As with the inspectorate’s current approach to judging the quality of assessment in teaching, any MAT inspection framework should strive to reflect principles that underpin successful outcomes rather than seek judgment against specific and defined practices. That way, it was felt, standards can be ensured without curtailing innovation or the ability or confidence of academy trust leaders to respond to context.

There is, of course, still a long way to go.

The national schools commissioner for one does not appear convinced of Ofsted’s capacity in this area, and, if we do wish to have serving practitioners leading inspections, it will admittedly add more strain to an already pressed system.

The question is, can we wait long enough for an alternative option to be presented? Over to you, Mr Hinds.

Michael Pain is chief executive of Forum Education