MPs cast doubt on benefits of multi-academy trust expansion for schools

28 Feb 17

There is not enough evidence to support the expansion of multi-academy trusts as part of the government’s aim for all schools to become academies, the education select committee has concluded.

MPs said there was a “high degree of uncertainty” around their effectiveness and significant concerns about the performance, accountability and rate of expansion of MATs. It also called on ministers to enable high-performing local authorities to set up their own MATs, to capitalise on their expertise in education.

Multi-academy trusts allow academy schools to share resources, staff and expertise. Their expansion was planned as part of plans set out in May 2016 for all schools to become academies, although the government later said it would not to impose the change. Education secretary Justine Greening has said that while the government’s ambition remained that all schools would have academy status, it would not introduce any wider education legislation. Instead, the focus would instead be on “building capacity in the system".

The number of MATs in England has risen from 391 in 2011 to 1,121 in 2016, according to the select committee, and as of March last year, 65% of all academies and free schools were in MATs. Ministers expect a tipping point to be reached within five or six years’ time, where most schools will have converted to academies and joined a MAT. 

However, the committee concluded there was not enough evidence yet to justify such an expansion.

MPs welcomed the Department for Education’s ‘growth check’, which assesses whether an MAT is capable of taking on more schools. But the committee called on the government to go further and place “tighter controls” on the growth of trusts.

Moreover, the DfE has a “long way to go” to prove the public money going to academies is being used effectively, or that it can cope with the increased pressure on its financial oversight functions that a large expansion in trusts would create.

The report noted that some MATs were producing excellent results and “making a valuable contribution to our education system”, despite the fact that a considerable number were “failing to improve and are consistently at the bottom of league tables”.

Committee chair Neil Carmichael said MATs were a consequence of the government’s push to convert schools in England into academies, but the relevant policy and oversight frameworks “have been playing catch-up.”

He highlighted that if the government was aiming at greater academisation, “it will need to work with local authorities and allow those councils with a track record of strong educational performance to use their expertise within their education department to create MATs”.

The committee also raised concerns regarding the accountability of MATs, in light of the fact that some are not currently included within the inspection regime of Ofsted and regional schools commissioners. It said Ofsted should have the power to undertake full inspections of MATs, and recommended that the latter should engage more with parents and local communities.

Responding to the report, Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, urged the government to heed the committee’s warnings.

“Too many MATs have grown too quickly and have proved themselves unable to provide effective and timely support to their schools. The Department for Education’s own research shows that over half the MATs under, or seriously underperform at GCSE level.”

She called the proposal for local authorities to be able to set up MATs “entirely sensible, necessary and welcome.”

Recent research undertaken by the Local Government Association using Ofsted data that revealed 91% of council-maintained schools were rated as good or outstanding up to December 2016.

The LGA subsequently urged Whitehall to remove “bureaucratic barriers” that prevent maintained schools from sponsoring poorly performing academies. Currently, council-run schools must seek academy status before attempting to sponsor a failing academy.

Responding to the select committee report, a spokesman for the DfE said: “Where an academy is failing to reach the standards we expect, action is taken including transferring schools to new trusts.

“We are already developing a ‘growth check’ to ensure good trusts only take on new schools when they are ready and it will not impact on the education of the children they are already responsible for.”

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