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Ofsted: Academy Chains

Volume 759: debated on Monday 26 January 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to give Ofsted the powers to inspect the management of academy chains.

My Lords, when inspecting an academy in a chain, inspectors can and should consider the effectiveness of the governance arrangements and the school improvement support provided by the chain. Ofsted also carries out inspections of groups of academies within chains. These are an effective means of considering the management of academy chains and ensuring academy chains are held properly to account. The Secretary of State has written to HMCI recently, setting out our views out on this, and the letter is available on our website.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and I am very pleased that the Secretary of State has belatedly been forced to make some concessions on this matter. However, can the Minister explain why we continue to have one set of rules for the people who run academy chains and another set of rules for local authorities? The latter are assessed on their strategic leadership of their schools, which of course is essential to the schools’ performance and improvement. So why do we not assess academy chain managers on the same basis as local authorities?

There have not been any concessions. It is completely unnecessary for Ofsted to inspect chains’ head offices. Its batched inspection methodology, which it has used in a number of cases, is working extremely well. Ofsted has a great deal to do. As of September this year, it is taking in-house all its subcontracted inspectors, who do the vast majority of its inspections, and it is unnecessary to ask it to do a further task that is not needed.

Could my noble friend explain to the House what role the new regional commissioners will have in relation to academy chains and Ofsted? For example, if Ofsted finds that a school is not being supported as it should be by its parent academy chain, whose responsibility is it to remonstrate with the academy chain and make sure that it gets that support?

The regional schools commissioners are responsible for looking at the performance of academy chains, particularly schools that are doing poorly. They are in close touch with all academy chains. Each regional schools commissioner has a responsibility for an academy chain, and it will be their task to make sure that appropriate support is brokered and, in extreme cases, to help to broker a change of sponsor.

My Lords, the Secretary of State’s letter mentions an inspection framework for the management of academies. Exactly what inspection framework is meant?

The Secretary of State’s letter in relation to chains talks about it not being necessary to introduce a new inspection framework. There is a clear framework for inspecting all schools in this country.

Is my noble friend aware that he is surely right? Local authority inspections are one thing but, in addition, there are a whole host of charitable foundations that have Ofsted inspections—but that is, again, in a different framework.

Yes, I was merely referring to the fact that the letter that the Secretary of State refers to talks about a new framework and that we have not got a new framework for the inspection of chains.

Does my noble friend agree that the overwhelming success of the majority of free schools and academies is the strongest evidence yet that allowing autonomy and freedom to schools and heads is the best way in which to raise standards?

I entirely agree with my noble friend: free schools are our most successful group of non-selective state schools, with 24% rated outstanding. We are told by Ofsted that we have the highest-performing school system that we have ever had. The performance of the first batch of primary academies is much higher than that of local authority maintained schools, and secondary academies open for any length of time are clearly also doing better.

My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on a fear that local authority schools have a much higher percentage of children with special needs, particularly those with special needs that affect their behaviour? The Minister very kindly wrote to me, giving me the percentage improvement in free schools and academies, but many schools contact me to say that their local academies and free schools do not take as many children with difficulties and problems, and that, in addition, those schools get better funding.

I am very happy to write to the noble Baroness again with more details on this. However, as far as I am aware, most academies, particularly the 1,000 schools that we have taken out of local authority maintenance over the past four years, many of which were languishing in failure for years, have very high rates of pupils with SEN, EAL and free school meals. However, I am happy to write to her with more details.