Only a handful of multi-academy trusts are up to the job of improving England’s schools, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has told MPs, before accusing the Department for Education of being too slow to intervene in struggling schools.
Speaking to the education select committee, the outgoing chief inspector of schools criticised the government’s flagship school improvement programme, which involves multi-academy trusts (Mats) taking over schools formerly maintained by local authorities.
Wilshaw claimed the government had allowed too many schools to be taken over by Mats with weak or uneven records and which lacked the capacity to improve the schools under their control.
“We undertook a survey of good Mats and we were really struggling to find them. We have established that there are about half a dozen, but there are a lot of mediocre trusts out there,” Wilshaw said.
Wilshaw and Sir David Carter, who was appointed to the post of national schools commissioner by education secretary Nicky Morgan in February, were giving evidence to the education committee on the growth of multi-academy trusts, with 973 now running schools in England and an estimated 1,000 more required if all schools become academies.
At one point, Wilshaw compared Mats to the US supermarket chain Walmart, accusing them of being more interested in rapid expansion than quality.
“Some multi-academy trusts have been allowed to grow too quickly,” Wilshaw said. “Executive head teachers wanted to show how many schools they had rather than how good they were.”
Wilshaw said Ofsted had identified seven multi-academy chains that were too concerned with expanding: “When we looked at these seven failing ones, they had what I called a Walmart philosophy: pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. It was empire-building rather than having the capacity to improve schools.”
But Carter assured MPs that poorly performing Mats would not be given approval to take over schools in the future and that a “health check” was being developed to assess a Mat’s track record.
“I do think there is evidence Mats are working, but this is an evolution: they are the new beasts on the block,” Carter said, claiming that the best Mats, such as the Ark academy chain, did some of the best work in improving the education of disadvantaged pupils.
Carter is a former chief executive of a multi-academy trust, the Cabot Learning Federation, and was one of the DfE’s first regional schools commissioners, the middle layer of management created to oversee academies and trusts.
When Wilshaw steps down at the end of the year, his replacement, announced by the DfE last week, is to be Amanda Spielman, one of the founders of the Ark chain.
Wilshaw criticised the network of regional schools commissioners for failing to intervene promptly when schools were identified as requiring improvement. “The big concern I have about regional schools commissioners is, are they being pro-active enough?”
Questioned about the benefits of autonomy offered to those running academies, Wilshaw said he had just as much freedom running maintained secondary schools in 1992. “I was master of my own destiny. When I became head of an academy, my life didn’t really change,” he said.
Wilshaw said local authorities were failing to tackle unregistered schools “operating in the shadows” in their areas, leaving children in danger of exposure to extremism – although he admitted under questioning from MPs that no children had been found to be directly radicalised.
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