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Ofsted inspections of MATs must celebrate success and highlight best practice

23 January 2018

Stephen Rollett is Inspections and Accountability Specialist, Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). He supports members across a range of issues in relation to Ofsted and school accountability. In this guest blog for BlueSky, he discusses the burning issues surrounding the prospect of changes in the law to permit Ofsted to inspect multi-academy trusts

Ofsted inspections of MATs must celebrate success and highlight best practice

It was interesting to see Ofsted's 2017-22 strategic plan published this autumn hinted at a new approach to inspecting multi-academy trusts (MATs) on the horizon. But while we know there's an intention to beef up the powers of MAT inspections, as yet we have no insight into the details of how it might work.

Ofsted have simply stated that: "In the coming months, we will work with the Department for Education to develop new approaches and expertise to allow us to better scrutinise education, training and care structures, including at the multi-academy trust level."

There would of course have to be a change in the framework to allow Ofsted to inspect multi-academy trusts and it would mean that the inspectorate could scrutinise MATs themselves, as well as their schools.

Such independent scrutiny of MATs would seem to be an appropriate step within the context of our education system. They are large organisations, with a lot of public money going into them. So the view that MATs should be accountable for that seems sound.

Formalising the process, so that Ofsted could inspect MATs as it inspects local authorities and add that extra clarity and transparency, may be desirable. As Ofsted's director of corporate strategy, Luke Tryl, has said, inspection legislation hasn't kept pace with some of the huge changes in the structure of education so MAT inspection is really just about making sure that Ofsted reflects the educational landscape as it is now.

Further proof of the direction of travel came when Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman told MPs in the education select committee that she will continue demanding the right to inspect MATs even if the education secretary denied the necessary permissions. She said it was about; 'Making sure that the accountability that we have fits how the sector actually operates, not how it did 25 years ago".

That said, there are potential tensions and issues regarding the role of regional school commissioners (RSCs) and national schools commissioner Sir David Carter, around how it will all fit together. And of course we already have DfE performance measures for MATS, although they are not currently referred to widely.

There have also been questions about what such inspections might look like and even about who would conduct them – do existing Ofsted inspectors have the necessary expertise?

One answer would be to consider the criticism surrounding Amanda Spielman when she took the helm at Ofsted without having experience as a teacher or school senior leader herself. She countered that the remit of the inspectorate is so broad that one person was unlikely to have the obtained the full range of experience. Her point was that she would build a team with the necessary experience around her.

This approach may hold true for MAT inspections too, with a remit which might cover everything from finances to the quality of education. A framework which lends itself to consistent judgments would also be essential and there will be a training need certainly – but I'm not sure whether you need to have led a MAT to be able to inspect one.

I feel that a more important point is that any Ofsted inspections of MATs should celebrate success. Inspections are not just an opportunity to put the boot in, but rather they can highlight best practice and praise the many MATs which are turning schools around, leading improvement and making positive contributions to the local communities in which they operate.

Thinking particularly about school improvement, the more Ofsted can get to grips with what's driving successful MATs; the easier it will be to promote best practice.