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BLOG: Initial thoughts on Ofsted’s summary evaluations of academy trusts

The last few weeks have seen Ofsted publish an initial batch of ‘summary evaluations’ of multi-academy trusts. These reports are the first published under its new approach to reviewing academy trusts, as outlined here: Overview of Ofsted’s approach to ‘summary evaluations’ of MATs.

Whilst it is early days, we have been watching with interest which aspects of trusts’ work Ofsted has chosen to include in their summary evaluation reports, giving us an insight into what they consider to be key to effective MAT development and delivery. Our view at Forum Strategy is that the MAT model is based on autonomy and freedom to respond to context and the needs and aspirations of this generation of children and young people. We believe that principles rather than specific practices (unless these relate to compliance and regulatory issues) should define what we mean at a national level by effective MATs. We most certainly do not want to see Ofsted’s summary evaluations interpreted as ‘best practice’ guides, where MATs then respond in a knee-jerk way to what other trusts ‘hailed’ by the inspectorate are doing in their own specific contexts.

I’m pleased to say that the first few evaluations point very much towards principles rather than practices, however, there are places where Ofsted does detail some specific approaches in rather positive terms. This is, however, quite unavoidable when providing evidence that underpins a particular observation or conclusion, but Ofsted must be careful not to be seen to be endorsing a specific approach as it can quickly be interpreted as ‘best practice’. Ofsted inspectors are, after all, not the experts in leading multi-academy trusts, yet they could risk giving rise to a one-size fits all approach to what is meant to be a responsive and context-sensitive model.

So, what are the key principles that appear to be emerging in the evaluation reports. This is by no means the whole story, but Ofsted are clearly attaching importance to:

  • A clear and shared vision across the trust, with heads, school leaders and governors being aware of this and feeling a sense of ownership;
  • Heads and school leaders feeling supported and respecting and valuing the trust’s school improvement leaders;
  • A good balance between the trust’s challenge and its support of its school leaders – one report quoted a head who said: “we are worked with rather than done to.”;
  • How well a trust ‘knows’ it schools, including their strengths and weaknesses and how this translates into improvement activity;
  • Clarity around the scheme of delegation and the role of LGBs
  • Trends in pupil data across the trust where improvement is needed – examples so far have included the progress of disadvantaged pupils and attendance;
  • The quality of training and CPD, with reference to schools leaders’ perceptions and links to recruitment / retention
  • Heads feeling supported to focus on school improvement activity; one report covered this with reference to the trust’s ‘effective’ central services such as human resources, finance and estate management functions.
  • A good balance of autonomy and central oversight – reports have referenced (positively) the retention of individuality in trusts’ schools
  • School leaders understand their contribution to the trust

So, more principles, less practices – however it could be argued that citing examples of a MAT’s central services and implying that it is a good thing that heads need not concern themselves so much with HR, finance and estates could be stepping into territory that begins to define MATs practices! My personal view is that where these central services are of a high standard, leaders do have more scope to focus on what matters to them most – teaching and learning and that’s a key benefit of MATs; but I was surprised to see Ofsted say this much.

It is clear that Ofsted is spending a lot of time listening to views on the ground, in schools, around perceptions of the MATs and the value that they add. How much of this evidence is gleaned from the initial stage one section 5 or 8 visits, and how much is gleaned from the stage two visits and calls (which have no legal footing) is unclear at this stage. The views gathered do appear to be those of heads and senior leaders rather than teaching and support staff themselves, which may account for why there is limited reference to trusts’ role as employers and in recruitment and retention (although there is a bit on this).

If I were leading a MAT, the most important message I would take from all of this is do all senior leaders and schools across the MAT have a shared and well understood sense of the trust’s vision. Indeed, do they have a sense of ownership and involvement in it? This seems to define schools’ understanding of the value the trust adds, the relationships and ways of working with the central trust, and awareness of everyone’s role in contributing to the work of the wider trust. Vision is the first thing that each of the reports covers. There has been no attempt to pass judgment or opinion on the merits of the vision itself – that’s contextual and its impact clearly relates to how well schools buy into it and own it. (Take a look at our blog: Why so many MATs are yet to develop a compelling vision (and how they can go about forging and embedding one))

In addition, having a very deep understanding the strengths and weaknesses of all schools, the cross-trust trends, and how these feed into the trust’s improvement strategy and resourcing, clearly matters. Again, the substance of this will differ depending on the individual trust and its circumstances.

So overall, I find myself feeling rather positive about the initial summary evaluations of MATs and the tone they take. This is, mostly, about principles rather than practices. Let’s hope it stays this way and the system doesn’t react by looking for an Ofsted blueprint. For that reason, I have refrained from including specific examples taken from the reports in this blog.

We will spend time learning more about individual MAT’s experiences of the process and how conducive it has been to trust development and progress in the coming weeks and months. Watch this space!

March 13, 2019