Wilshaw and Carter to clash in first day of evidence

Sir Michael Wilshaw and Sir David Carter will appear together at the first evidence hearing next week of the select committee’s inquiry into multi-academy trusts. The pair often have differing views, says Neil Carmichael, which should make for an interesting session

Next Wednesday the education select committee will begin its inquiry into multi-academy trusts (MATs) by hearing from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, and Sir David Carter, the new national schools commissioner. The government’s plans to increase the number of academies makes this piece of work particularly timely.

In January we published a report on regional schools commissioners (RSCs) calling for improvements to their transparency, accountability and working relationships. This inquiry carries on the work in scrutinising the increasingly important “middle tier” between Whitehall and individual schools.

The government’s plans depend upon an increase in the number of MATs and we are keen to look at their role, accountability and governance structures. As two of the most influential people in education today, we are pleased that Sir Michael and Sir David will appear together at our first evidence hearing next week.

We will follow this session by hearing from existing MATs later in the summer and then unions and organisations representing school governors and local authorities. We want to hear from a wide range of stakeholders, including those schools that have chosen not to join a MAT.

On March 2, Sir Michael told us that Ofsted can provide parliament with a national picture of schools in a way that Sir David’s team of RSCs cannot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sir David has expressed a contrary view, backing his officials to deliver more significant representation.

We received 46 pieces of written evidence on MATs, with several raising concerns over the extent to which RSCs and Ofsted have complementary roles in school improvement and accountability.

Sir David, whose responsibilities include academy conversions and promoting the benefits of MAT membership, may argue that he is in a position to provide specialist oversight of academy expansion. As the number of academies rises, his role of national schools commissioner would appear to be one of growing power.

However, while Ofsted may not always be the most popular organisation in our educational system, parents clearly value and expect there to be a national standard of inspection. This helps them to make informed decisions about their children’s education, whether the school is under the control of a local authority, run by a MAT or is a standalone academy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the larger MATs take a more critical view of the watchdog. The Academies Enterprise Trust has said in written evidence it would prefer monitoring through peer review, obviating any need for Ofsted involvement with MATs. Similarly, Oasis has written to us suggesting that it is not in Ofsted’s skillset to assess the infrastructure and governance of charitable organisations such as MATs.

Sir Michael says Ofsted can provide a national picture of schools in a way that Sir David’s RSCs cannot

Sir Michael is not afraid to speak out. The chief inspector this week branded the East Midlands the “worst-performing region in the country” after Ofsted wrote to Northamptonshire councils, academies and regional commissioner about poor standards. He spoke of a “culture of complacency and a lack of clear accountability”, which should be a warning to examine very carefully the mechanisms for managing the performance, governance, and accountability of all schools, including academies.

Sir Michael has previously made it clear that Ofsted should have legislative backing to inspect MATs on the same basis that they currently inspect local authorities. He will no doubt want to restate Ofsted’s position next week.

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