I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Ofsted inspection of multi-academy trusts.
There is much excitement, as we are expecting to hear the Division bell. I will speak slowly at the beginning of my speech, and say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again in a Westminster Hall debate, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to the Minister and welcome him to his new role. I spent time with him on the campaign trail, as well as working with him when he was in the Northern Ireland Office. I am delighted to see the new Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend David Johnston, with whom I served on the Education Committee for over a year and a half. He brings a lot of experience to the Department of Education. I also welcome the shadow Minister, Peter Kyle—I thoroughly enjoy exchanging a few heckles with him across the Floor of the House, but I also know the passion he has in this area and I am pleased to see him in the Chamber.
Thank you, Mr Robertson, for calling me to speak again, and I thank everyone else in Westminster Hall for coming back swiftly after the Divisions. I will not repeat all the love-ins that I gave before the Divisions; instead, I will go straight on to saying why we are having this very important debate.
When the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke lent me their votes in 2019, it was because they wanted change after 70 years of Labour neglect. A Conservative-led council, Conservative MPs and a Conservative Government are finally levelling up our fantastic city and unleashing the boundless opportunity that it has to offer, while Labour Members are still trying to find Stoke-on-Trent on their Ordnance Survey maps.
As a former teacher, I believe that the most important way to continue levelling up our city is to transform education across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. It is unacceptable that children from Stoke-on-Trent simply cannot access the same standard of education that is on offer elsewhere in the country. Where we are today, in Westminster, there are eight secondary schools rated outstanding, with a further 16 outstanding schools in Camden, Kensington and Chelsea, and Southwood. By contrast, there is only one outstanding secondary school in Stoke-on-Trent, with another outstanding school shared between the neighbouring local authorities of Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire Moorlands and Stafford.
Such examples show why I firmly believe that if levelling up means anything, it means that each and every child, no matter where they live in our United Kingdom, has the chance to attend the best schools, where they can receive the education they need to attend first-class universities or gain skills via an apprenticeship or vocational training. As a former teacher who taught in academies for eight years, I think that academies are one of the keys to spreading educational opportunity around the country. Multi-academy trusts back great teachers and, most importantly, they enable our children to reach their potential.
As the “Lost Learning” report that I co-authored earlier this year with Onward and the New Schools Network year argued, we should
“much more aggressively use multi-academy trusts as the engine of school improvement, by…holding them to account for their ability to turnaround underperforming schools”.
Since 2010, the Conservative Government have invested in multi-academy trusts, and throughout my teaching career I saw at first hand how that investment acted as a vehicle for school improvement by advancing the education that our children receive.
That has been reflected in the Ofsted rating of schools. Between 2010 and 2020, the proportion of schools that Ofsted rated as good or outstanding rose from 66% to 86%, while 2018 figures showed that at converter academies open for one year, 65% of pupils reached the expected standards in reading, writing and maths—that figure rises to 71% in converter academies open for seven years or more.
Coupled with the drive for academisation, the free school agenda has been at the heart of the Government’s impressive record on education since 2010. At free schools, 10% more disadvantaged pupils achieve a pass between grades 5 and 9 in their English and maths GCSEs than their peers at other types of state school.
I firmly believe that free schools and academies are key to our mission to level up around the country, and therefore it is only right that pupils in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke should benefit from a free school opening up in the community. I look forward to the Minister announcing that wave 15 is finally coming down the track, so that we can bid for a disruptor free school. I have very much enjoyed talking to Star Academies and to Michaela Community School, which has the fantastic Katharine Birbalsingh, to see if she will endeavour to come to Stoke-on-Trent and shake the apple tree.
On top of their role in driving up school standards, multi-academy trusts are vital in turning around failing schools. To take a local example, the inspirational Learning Academies Trust has transformed the fortunes of two schools in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Norton-le-Moors Primary Academy became part of the Learning Academies Trust in 2015, following an Ofsted inspection that rated it as inadequate. After the takeover, it received its first good grade from Ofsted in 2017, and in 2019, 13% of pupils, which is higher than the national average, were achieving beyond the expected standards for reading, writing and maths. I will give a big shout-out to Jack, who was a runner-up in my Christmas card competition. It was a pleasure to visit him with Councillor Dave Evans and award him the prize of the card, as well as Port Vale football match tickets—Stoke’s first team, of course, unlike that team further south, Stoke City.
We also have Whitfield Valley Primary Academy in Fegg Hayes, which joined the Inspirational Learning Academies Trust in 2016. It is now not only rated good by Ofsted but has achieved an above-average progress score in maths, as well as above-average scores in reading and writing.
To look at another example, the Shaw Education Trust recently took over Kidsgrove Primary and Secondary Schools, following inadequate Ofsted ratings under the former multi-academy trust, the University of Chester Academies Trust. That shameful trust has been slammed by Ofsted for failing in its school improvement strategies and below-average standards in some of its schools. In May 2018, it received a formal warning from the Education and Skills Funding Agency to get its finances in order, after racking up a £3 million deficit. The trust confirmed that it was considering cutting 24 support staff and 19 teaching roles across its schools.
Since then, thanks to the Shaw Education Trust, Kidsgrove Primary and Secondary have partnered in launching a new digital strategy, allowing pupils to be taught with up-to-date technology. That follows my “Silicon Stoke” agenda, a new prospectus setting out the ambition for a digital transformation of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, enabling it to become a smart city, attracting new national and international businesses, and being at the heart of the UK video games sector.
“Silicon Stoke” ensures that Stoke-on-Trent takes up opportunities through digital connectivity, and the Shaw Education Trust has ensured that our primary and secondary students at Kidsgrove and Talke are kept up to speed with the new digital age through the digital strategy. Since July this year, all classrooms in Kidsgrove Primary, for example, have been equipped with the latest Promethean boards for teacher and pupil use, and since September, there has been a measure for all students across both schools to receive an iPad, to support school and home learning.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. I thank him for referencing the Shaw Education Trust, which also has schools in my constituency, such as the Orme Academy. Does he agree that one of the benefits of multi-academy trusts is that they can spread best practice from one area to another, and thus raise standards for everybody across my borough and his city?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour, with whom I share Kidsgrove, Talke and Newchapel, since they are within the Newcastle-under-Lyme borough. As we have just heard, the Shaw Education Trust has spread good practice and is sharing expertise, not just across that borough but also within the Stoke-on-Trent City Council area. In fact, the current city director of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Jon Rouse, was formerly the head of the Shaw Education Trust. I am sure that he is keen to ensure that he declares that he has no interest any more in that trust, having become city director. Ultimately, we could see what he was doing in the Greater Manchester area and how Shaw Education Trust has gone on to do many great things.
My hon. Friend has been a doughty champion for all the schools in his community. Not a day has gone by recently without me seeing a photo of him in a school in his constituency. I know he was recently at Silverdale in the Knutton area, visiting some of the fantastic schools there, alongside local county councillor Derrick Huckfield, who is also doing a fantastic job in that area.
Multi-academy trusts have proven, across Stoke-on-Trent, north Kidsgrove and Talke, that they can level up education by driving up standards and giving our children the education that they deserve. We are committed to driving up school standards across the city. The new education challenge board, approved by the Secretary of State and the Minister for School Standards, is chaired by Sir Mark Grundy, a highly respected educational leader. It will bring together city council leaders, the Department for Education, local academies, Ofsted and the regional schools commissioner. Working collaboratively, the new education challenge board will provide oversight of educational performance across Stoke-on-Trent, helping to turn schools around through first-class teaching and leadership, by drawing on the expertise of the trusts already succeeding within the city.
Unfortunately, not all the trusts are performing in the same way. That matters, because 42% of schools are now academies, and 84% of those academies are part of multi-academy trusts. Since they have control over such a significant number of our schools, families must have confidence in trusts, regardless of where they are in the country. Parents and teachers work incredibly hard to provide children with the best education they can, while listening to various scandals of multi-academy trusts abusing their budgets with excessive spending.
To pick just a few examples, 40 chains have spent more than £1 million on executive expenses, paying thousands for first-class travel. The Aspirations Academy Trust, based near Heathrow airport, has spent nearly £90,000 for its America-based co-founders to fly across the Atlantic; the Paradigm Trust in London has covered the cost of broadband at its boss’s French holiday home; and the Academy Transformation Trust in Sutton Coldfield has even paid to lease a new XJ Premium Luxury V6 Jaguar for a chief executive earning £180,000 a year.
I want to make it clear that I am a huge supporter of academisation, and I believe that we should be going full throttle to turn all schools into academies. Through my experience as a teacher, I have seen at first hand how brilliantly they can turn failing schools around, but we must restore the faith of parents, teachers and, most importantly, the pupils, and we must ensure that trusts are working on behalf of students and not, insultingly, taking advantage of the big budgets to which they have access. It is absolutely right that we move from the local education authority model, but we do not want to create less accountable and transparent LEAs by not having multi-academy trusts properly inspected.
That is the heart of the issue. With no formal procedure in place for inspecting the boards of trustees of multi-academy trusts, how can parents and teachers know that their trusts are performing with the best interests of the school and students at heart? If Ofsted were able to consider the achievement of pupils across schools covered by a multi-academy trust, the success of a multi-academy trust in reversing educational underperformance, and the quality of leadership, financial management and governance of a multi-academy trust, we could ensure that multi-academy trusts played a full role and, crucially, allow those that are doing truly excellent work to be recognised.
I commend my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I wonder whether he will touch briefly on the issue of the regional schools commissioners. As he has rightly outlined, there is concern that multi-academy trusts lack transparency in their governance structures and are difficult to hold to account, but there is also concern about how we as Members of Parliament can access the commissioners, interact with them and help to raise concerns through the system. Will he draw that to the attention of the Minister and give his own thoughts on that particular challenge?
I am very lucky to have had a really healthy working relationship with the west midlands regional schools commissioner, who is a former headteacher at the Mill Hill Primary Academy in Stoke-on-Trent North. However, I have serious concerns, and the purpose and role of regional schools commissioners is an issue that was raised in the Education Committee. When those posts were originally set up, it was absolutely the right thing to do, both to have accountability and so that parents, Members of Parliament and teachers in the schools could raise any concerns. In my opinion, regional schools commissioners should be brokering deals, such as new deals for multi-academy trusts to come into a local area, holding to account boards of trustees that they think are underperforming, and feeding that information back to the Department for Education.
At this moment in time, I do not think that regional schools commissioners are utilised well enough, and there has to be a discussion at some stage about whether they are the right model to bring this change about in the long term, and whether they could be given more powers. Hopefully, we will ensure that regional schools commissioners are not just civil servants, whom I am sure are very noble and worthy people, but that they have spent years in the classroom at all levels of governance and management and can bring their experience with them. That is when a regional schools commissioner can really work. At the moment, they are simply not fit for purpose. I know that the Education Committee raised this issue, and I am sure the Minister will look at it.
We have had a great 10 years of Govian and Gibbian reforms. We will now have the Zahawi-Walker reforms over the next 10 years, and I am sure there will be a White Paper in which we will start to see the next 10 years of mission for education. I hope the role of regional schools commissioner can be explored by the Minister, and I look forward to hearing his thoughts on that. If he cannot tell us today, I am sure he can write to us to let us know how he sees that going forward.
Teachers are accountable for the education they provide to pupils, with Ofsted inspecting schools, including individual academies, and children’s social services. To restore faith between teachers and trusts, multi-academy trusts and their leadership teams must be accountable in the same way as teachers. Ofsted’s chair, Dame Christine Ryan, has agreed with the need to inspect schools’ governing bodies, noting in the Education Committee meeting in September this year:
“I always felt it was absolutely essential to carry out inspection activities on the governing area and its interactions with the schools that it owned.”
Hospital trusts are subject to inspection by the Care Quality Commission, so why can Ofsted not inspect multi-academy trusts in the same way?
We have been moving in the right direction. In 2018, Ofsted trialled inspecting individual academies under the same multi-academy trust before visiting the trust’s head office to evaluate its effectiveness. Although that certainly highlighted the requirement to inspect multi-academy trusts, inspections remain focused on individual schools, meaning that wider issues at the heart of the trusts that run them can go undetected. Inspections that cover only individual schools are the crux of the multi-academy trusts’ accountability problem. Education Committee meetings with Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman in June 2021 were revealing, as she said:
“We still operate what in some respects is historic inspection legislation that constrains us to look at the level of the individual school”.
That clearly limits our ability to hold those responsible to account. The chief inspector noted in November 2020 that
“accountability needs to be able to look at the multiple levels in the system to ask the right questions at the right level”.
To ensure that multi-academy trusts truly use their power for the benefit of our schools, accountability must reflect the top-heavy leadership style of many trusts, and thus hold those responsible to account.
Ultimately, multi-academy trusts can, and do, turn schools around, just as the Inspirational Learning Academies Trust has done across schools in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. By holding trusts to account through regular inspection—they do not fear being held to account because they are proud of their work—we can ensure that schools, staff and students alike are performing to their full potential. The inspection of multi-academy trusts will allow us to recognise those that perform well, and incentivise the best multi-academy trusts with generous funding to take on struggling schools. By keeping trusts responsible for their performance, we can seek to harness their power, especially in parts of the country where school outcomes are weak. With my personal experience in the teaching profession, I believe that multi-academy trusts are the proven route to ensuring that every child, no matter where they live, can attend a school where they will reach their potential, and open doors to the career routes they wish to pursue.
When I was elected, I promised to level up communities like Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, and providing a quality education for every child is vital to doing this. Multi-academy trusts have had a crucial role in the great improvements in school standards in the last decade; it is our responsibility to identify the best of them and use their power to prove to every child, up and down our United Kingdom, that they are not forgotten and opportunity sits right on their doorstep.
This debate comes off the back of my introduction of a ten-minute rule Bill, for which I was delighted to receive cross-party support from members of the Labour party and from the Liberal Democrats. It shows the strength of feeling on this issue. I was lucky enough to secure the signature of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage before he was promoted to become Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department for Education. He knows how great this is, and I am sure that he will use his position within the Department for Education to lobby the Minister. Ultimately, I think this shows the strength of feeling that this is the right way to have fairness, accountability, transparency and to ensure that multi-academy trusts are a positive driver for improving education outcomes across England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the very first time, Mr Robertson, unlike Jonathan Gullis, who seems to be a regular in your sessions. I am also very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate, and for the persistence with which he is championing this cause. It is extraordinary; he had so much time in which to speak in this debate, and yet he did so at such a ferocious pace. For the benefit of our friends in Hansard, I will speak more slowly so that they can rest their weary quills for the next few minutes.
There are 7,680 schools in this country that are now part of multi-academy trusts. Even if each of those schools had just 500 pupils, that would mean several thousand young people whose futures are in the hands of multi-academy trusts. Regardless of ideology, that should give us pause for thought. Due to the reforms of recent years, multi-academy trusts now have a level of influence over the school system that few could have predicted, even when the first trusts emerged. In fact, most other authorities with responsibilities for young people are subject to extremely stringent inspection regimes—even if they are responsible for far fewer children than many multi-academy trusts. That is why we must do all we can to ensure that, whatever regulatory framework we develop for MATs, it reflects the level of influence that these trusts now exert.
For too long, education policy has been dominated by discussion of school structures. I noticed that in his speech, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North fell into the same trap, if he does not mind my saying so. As someone who has helped set up two academies, I know their strengths—that they can be a phenomenal tool for delivering improvement—but also their limitations. To suggest that they would have the same impact in every situation stretches the single tool that academisation presents as an opportunity for the education system. Other tools are available to Ministers, principals of schools, school leaders, MATs and local education authorities, and we need to use all the different tools that are at our disposal, not disproportionately favour one for reasons that are simply ideological.
For too long, education policy has been dominated by discussions about school structures—that was, after all, the key plank of the reforms implemented by the Conservative-led coalition after the 2010 general election. Obsessions over school structures have held our schools back, because they have hidden new and emerging challenges in our school system such as the complete failure to root out sexual harassment in our education system. Though it has been found by Ofsted to be routine in all schools, there have been particularly high-profile cases of poor practice in “outstanding” schools that are part of well-established trusts. That is not an argument against trusts or against collaboration, but it is a clear example of how focusing on structures can obscure the real issues that are existing, emerging and developing within our school system. Our focus should not be on radical changes in school structures: it should be on what delivers improvement in the 2020s and beyond, not in a bygone era.
To his credit, I believe that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is focusing on this issue with a sincere desire to drive improvement, going forward. The Labour party and I are very grateful for that, which is why we have offered what I hope the hon. Gentleman will perceive as constructive support since he introduced his ten-minute rule Bill and beyond. He has drawn national attention to the proliferation of multi-academy trusts under this Government, and has pushed for a specific loophole around inspections to be closed.
As has been noted, Ofsted has carried out summary inspections on multi-academy trusts since 2019. Recent updates to the guidance on those inspections should help to broaden their remit and increase their volume. However, Ofsted itself has highlighted the need to go further: its chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has highlighted the “peculiarity” of not inspecting MATs on their governance, efficiency and use of resources. Appearing before the Select Committee on Education, she also referred to a suite of
“historic inspection legislation that constrains us to look at the level of the individual school”.
We in the Labour party completely agree that inspections of multi-academy trusts should take place. We also agree that those inspections should include a proper assessment of leadership, governance and safeguarding arrangements, so we look forward to hearing the Minister’s response today.
As a former chair of governors involved in setting up two turnaround academies, I know how important leadership is to the success of schools. What is more, we never feared being held to account. Inspections are important: in fact, we relished the chance to show what we could do and learn how to perform better. I was there at 7.30 in the morning as chair of governors, alongside the principal, to await the team of inspectors. We welcomed them to our school and we saw their inspection as a tool for improvement, even though we all felt the heat—the anticipation—and did so with great nerves, because we wanted to show off what was great about our school.
When I got the reports in from those inspections, I found them to contain incredibly helpful insights into the performance of schools, which often reinforced the direction of travel within a school and highlighted those things that we did not quite notice. Even on school inspections, classroom visits and walkarounds, it is very hard for people who are not trained educationists to see with their own eyes precisely what is happening in every corner of a school, rather than just going on the data that is presented to them by that school. Inspections are a really important part of improvement, whatever the organisation. So, I have no doubt that genuinely forward-looking MATs will take the same approach to a more rigorous form of inspection for their own organisations than the current regime offers—a form of inspection that champions innovation and gives the insight and analysis of performance to help MATs improve in practice, just as a good inspection should seek to improve individual schools as well.
Adopting a new form of inspection to challenge and support MAT leaders is one thing, but driving up performance and leaders will take far more than a new inspection regime, especially given how badly both they and pupils have been let down during the pandemic. According to research conducted by Teacher Tapp, only 2.5% of school leaders felt supported by the Department for Education throughout the pandemic. Think about that for one second: 97.5% of teachers—over 400,000—trying to respond to a once in a lifetime disruption to education without anyone backing them up. The sense of isolation they felt was profound.
Changes to inspection regimes will go so far, but will not remedy the worst failures of this Conservative Government. What is worse, the Department’s muddled and inconsistent advice was often actively harming our school leaders’ ability to respond. One teacher said of the guidance that she received:
“I physically look at it and I can’t even bring myself to open it right now, because you just get saturated with it”.
Threatened with legal action if they closed—only to be forced to close the very next day—schools and trust leaders have lacked proper leadership throughout the pandemic. They are now lacking properly resourced catch-up support and tough action to clamp down on anti-vaxxers outside school gates.
I want to put it on the record that I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman regarding the disgraceful action of anti-vaxxers standing outside schools filming young people coming in and out of that school, as well as parents. It is absolutely abhorrent and there is absolutely no place for it. This Government have to come down hard on those people.
School, for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, is the safest place for them. As a former head of year, I used to have a lot of children who hung around after school—despite the fact they told me it was the worst place to be—because it was where they felt safest. The fact that we have these disgusting individuals targeting young people is abhorrent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will also call for action. I want to make sure this is on the record for the Minister: we have to go in hard; we have to make our young people and teachers feel safe.
This is something that I have been deeply concerned about since the start of the autumn term in September. On
The principal of a school told me recently that he feels his job is no longer primarily that of leading an institution for schooling, but of running a logistics centre: twice-weekly testing in school, organising the logistics behind a vaccine roll-out in school, dealing with local outbreaks, and dealing with the need to control the flow of students. He said the first, second, third and often fourth items on the agenda of his daily senior management team meetings were about logistical challenges, not teaching and learning. That is the price of not seeing this coming down the road. It was predicted and predictable and was not dealt with.
The Labour party has tried to be constructive about this. Last month the Leader of the Opposition proposed a solution—to update the legislation around public spaces protection orders. They are unwieldy at the moment and could take several weeks to implement. However we believe that, with a very simple amendment to the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, the process could be streamlined so that an order could be brought into force in just one hour, with one phone conference between a school principal, the local authority and the local police force. They could bring into the order the powers to keep anti-vax protesters away from school gates for the duration of the vaccine roll-out programme. We offered that suggestion, but sadly the Government have not responded. The Secretary of State for Education said in response to my oral question just two weeks ago that he was in conversation with the Home Secretary, and that all powers would be implemented. Again, nothing happened. I cannot see that that conversation actually took place in a meaningful way.
However, there is another opportunity, and it is great that I have been given the opportunity to put it on the record. Tomorrow, in the House of Lords, Lord Coaker will table an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would amend the 2003 Act to give schools the powers that I have just described to instigate exclusion zones for anti-vax protesters within one hour, and they could do so pre-emptively; if one school is facing disruptive anti-vax protests in which children are being bullied, harassed and intimidated, in all likelihood the same will emerge down the road when the protest moves to another school, so schools need those powers to prevent that protest from happening. The Government have an opportunity to give them those powers. We would get this through in a heartbeat. The Labour Opposition in the House of Lords stand ready to table that amendment tomorrow.
I will have my say on another issue, because I feel as strongly as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, and we have another 25 minutes of debate, so I am sure I can get this on the record before I sum up the debate. In my constituency, anti-vax protesters have gone on to a school bus to tell children that they will become infertile if they take the vaccine. Outside schools in my constituency, there have been so many harassing, bullying and intimidatory protesters that schoolchildren have had to detour out into the busy main road in order to go through the driveway into the school. A child was grabbed by the collar and told that he could endanger the lives of his teachers and his parents.
I bring those experiences and my anger about that kind of behaviour because, let us be clear, these people are not just anti-vax. Six months ago, they were anti-face masks. A year or two ago, they were anti-covid altogether, believing it was all fake news. If they were alive 350 years ago, they would have been calling for Galileo to be burned at the stake for saying the earth revolves around the sun. We went through the scientific revolution, we went through the Enlightenment, in this country so that we could not base policy on superstition. We did so by bringing the best of scientific understanding to the heart of Government. Let us not allow these people to determine how public health unfolds in this country. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and for giving me the opportunity to put that on the record. I feel very strongly about it.
People leading schools and teaching in classrooms through the pandemic lack resources for catch-up support and tough action to clamp down on anti-vaxxers outside school gates. In contrast to the Government, the Labour party is on the side of pupils, teachers and leaders. Our goal is a well-functioning school system, backed with resources, direction and inspection, that prepares students for the world of work and the world of tomorrow that they will encounter. Under the new leadership of my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer, we have updated our positions on key issues in schools policy to meet the new challenges that schools and trusts face. The Government have not. We innovate; I am afraid that the Government stagnate.
What is the Minister’s assessment of the strength of the current inspection regime for MATs? What plans does he have to expand Ofsted’s inspection powers with regard to MATs, and does he intend to support any greater powers with the required resources? What other steps is he taking to support schools that wish to exit their trust if that is in the best interests of pupils? Will he commit to a new era of strong leadership from the Department for Education? This is a fantastic opportunity, as we hopefully see the finish line of the pandemic in sight, and with a new ministerial team, to commit to new, strong leadership—one that trust leaders, school leaders, teachers and students can at last trust, replacing the years of drift and decline.
As I made clear at the start, ensuring robust standards for all MATs is crucial. It would matter if they educated just one child; it certainly matters when they educate so many thousands. A young child has only one shot at their education; the state must do all it can to make that shot a success.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a great pleasure to follow Peter Kyle; it was great to hear him speak so passionately about the value of school inspection. I know he has had his differences with his party’s Front Bench in the past. Obviously, given the manifesto for school inspection that Labour fought the last election on, that is a pretty major difference. I welcome many of the points he made and, although it is not the subject of the debate, I share the absolute condemnation of bullying and intimidation by anti-vaxxers. It is, of course, totally unacceptable.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis—also the Member for Kidsgrove and Talke—on securing the debate. I know that its subject reflects his immense commitment and, indeed, successful frontline experience in improving educational outcomes for pupils. As we would expect, he has spoken with great passion and eloquence about the transformative potential of the academy system and the need to harness that so that pupils across the country, and particularly in his Stoke constituency, can benefit.
I am also pleased that, through the Stoke plan, there is a place-based pilot aiming to level up education in the city and identify strategies to build up MAT capacity in the area, and that my colleague, Baroness Barran, and the Secretary of State were recently able to attend the inaugural meeting of the education challenge board in the area. I am glad to hear of the positive developments that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North reported at both the Inspiration Trust and the Shaw Education Trust, as well as the support they have given my hon. Friend Aaron Bell.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has rightly emphasised the importance of having the right accountability arrangements in place to support continuous improvement in educational quality and, ultimately, to change the lives of children for the better. I thank him for that. We have also heard a number of valuable contributions from colleagues who are now elsewhere and, indeed, from the Opposition spokesman.
I am also conscious of the contributions of the Education Committee, its role in scrutinising current accountability arrangements and its interest in promoting Ofsted’s inspection role over a number of years through its reports and discussions, which underlies the relevance and importance of today’s debate across the House. I also acknowledge the desire of Her Majesty’s chief inspector and the Ofsted chair to go further.
I absolutely agree that accountability arrangements should develop over time to reflect the delivery of education and the decision making that goes on. It is clear that that delivery is taking place within an evolving landscape in which academies and MATs are playing an increasing role. A little more than a decade ago, there were just 203 academies. I am pleased to report that there are now more than 9,700 open academies, free schools, studio schools and university technical colleges, with around 1,200 academy trusts running more than one academy.
Today, more than 55% of pupils in state-funded education study in academies, but that of course means that almost half do not. The dual system of educational delivery in this country persists. We are on a journey to change that but we have not yet reached our destination: a world-class school-led system in which every school is part of a family of schools in a strong multi-academy trust.
Our commitment to reaching that destination is fuelled by the evidence of the benefits we already see in strong MATs. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has alluded to some of them today: the flexible deployment of teachers and leaders to where they are needed most; the opportunities for teachers to gain experience across school settings; the sharing of resources and mobilisation of the best available evidence of what works; the use of economies of scale to improve outcomes; and great resilience, which has been particularly important during the pandemic. The list goes on. Put simply, a group of schools in a trust, working together with a single aim, can make a profound difference. I agree with my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Hove that not all trusts are as strong as they could be, which is why accountability is a crucial part of the equation.
Ofsted already plays a role through its routine school inspection programme, which, as Members will know, was paused temporarily in response to the pandemic. The programme not only resumed in September, but has now accelerated so that all schools, including outstanding schools that were previously exempt from routine inspection, will have at least one inspection between last term and summer 2025—a year earlier than previously committed to—to provide swifter assurance for parents and more timely recognition of schools’ work as they strive to support pupils’ recovery.
Ofsted school inspection provides robust assessment of the quality of education and the strength of leadership and management in each and every academy. It is important to recognise that through the lens of the individual school Ofsted gazes at and captures the impact of MATs. After all, when an academy is part of a MAT, the board of trustees is the governance body and the role played by trustees in relation to the school is evaluated by the inspectors as part of their judgment of the effectiveness of leadership and management at the school. In a school with good leadership and management, inspectors will expect trustees and local governing boards to ensure that the school has a clear vision and strategy, manages its resources well and holds leaders to account for the quality of education provided to pupils.
The bottom-up accountability for MATs provided by Ofsted’s school-level inspection is supplemented by a programme of MAT summary evaluations, which provides more of a top-down view and insight into the role and impact of the MAT itself. Those evaluations draw on the inspections of individual academies in a trust, along with direct engagement with trust leaders to review how well a trust is delivering a high quality of education and raising standards for all pupils. To be clear, it is early days for the programme, which began in December 2018 and which builds on the previous batched inspection approach, and it has involved 12 MATs to date. As with routine inspections, the evaluations have rightly been paused in the light of the pandemic, but will now move forward under the recently revised Ofsted arrangements. The Ofsted updates are intended to bring evaluations more in line with Ofsted’s education inspection framework, with its focus on the quality of education and curriculum. The evaluation includes consideration of key information about the MAT and aims to recognise where it is having a positive impact, as well as giving the MAT helpful recommendations on aspects that could be improved.
I want to come back to the MAT summary evaluation programme, but before that I want to provide a wider context to the arrangements for MAT accountability. Academy trusts’ status as companies, charities and public-sector bodies means they are subject to significant scrutiny, beyond the necessarily periodic Ofsted inspections and evaluations. The Department, as regulator, requires a level of transparency from trusts, and its regional schools commissioners and their teams, together with the Education and Skills Funding Agency, provide robust educational financial oversight of all academy trusts. Trusts themselves must publish annual reports and audited accounts. That is in addition to the Department publishing a wide range of information, such as tables setting out measures of educational performance and financial benchmarking data. Both the regional schools commissioners and the ESFA hold trusts to account where schools are underperforming or where there are weaknesses in safeguarding, which we have heard about in today’s debate, governance or financial management. That can include commissioning support or issuing a pre-warning notice, a termination warning notice or a notice to improve, all of which are published if necessary. The funding agreement can be terminated and a new sponsor identified to take on responsibility for the academy.
On managing MAT expansion, we have increased the rigour around how regional schools commissioners decide on which academy trusts can grow, with oversight from the national schools commissioner. Before approving a decision about growth, RSCs will consider evidence about the educational and financial capacity of an academy trust. In doing so, they should consider the circumstances and maturity of the academy trust, reducing the likelihood that trusts grow in an unsustainable way as, I acknowledge, they have been known to in the past. To support that approach, regional schools commissioners regularly engage with trusts to ensure strong processes are in place to maintain and improve educational performance and to inform decisions about the suitability of a trust to support new schools.
I hear the concerns that my hon. Friend Dr Poulter raised and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North endorsed about the role of regional schools commissioners. Their role has evolved and I suspect that that will continue to happen. There is an increasing focus on financial management, supported by the ESFA. Regional schools commissioners and the ESFA need to work together to test both financial regularity and value for money in all trusts. I am happy to engage further on the issue with hon. Friends.
Financial accountability is founded on a clear framework communicated and regulated by the ESFA through trust funding arrangements and the academy trust handbook. As mentioned earlier, academy trusts must publish annual reports, audited by a registered statutory auditor. As part of their annual reports and accounts, trusts must also publish details of their objectives, achievements and future plans, including what they have done to promote value for money in support of those projects. The oversight arrangements go beyond the requirements for local authority maintained schools and provide the Department as regulator with confidence that the oversight is professional and consistent, as the auditors themselves have to confirm standards set by an independent regulator. It is right that we consider adapting and implementing the current academy transparency measures across the maintained sector to strengthen accountability for maintained schools and ensure we have strong and balanced arrangements across all schools. We are taking action as part of the Department’s 2020 transparency consultation response.
On the issue of financial mismanagement—my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has raised cases of that in the past—a number of steps have already been taken to strengthen academies’ financial accountability and transparency. That includes the introduction, in April 2019, of requirements for academies to declare to the ESFA, up front, any related party transactions, and in turn to seek approval for any transaction—or cumulative total of transactions—exceeding £20,000.
To be clear, the vast majority of academy trusts are delivering strong financial management and governance. The latest published data shows that in 2018-19, 99.3% of academy trust accounts received unqualified opinions. However, where there is any risk to public funds, the ESFA will intervene. That can include issuing a notice to improve, seeking to impose sanctions on individuals engaged in misconduct or, where appropriate, in the most serious cases, terminating funding agreements.
With the combination of Ofsted school inspection and Ofsted MAT summary evaluations, together with regulatory oversight through regional schools commissioners and the ESFA and transparency on educational outcomes through MAT performance tables, I hope hon. Members will agree that significant accountability safeguards are already in place for MATs. However, that does not mean that we should stand still. We need to keep arrangements under review and seek to build further assurance, where appropriate, while ensuring a balanced system, particularly when they are compared with local authority-maintained schools. I would like to see Ofsted’s MAT summary evaluation programme expanded in the short term, the MATs visited diversifying, and the model continuing to develop. I know that Her Majesty’s chief inspector is keen for that to happen. We will absolutely keep reviewing actively where and how we might go further.
Beyond that, I come back to my original theme: our plan is to move, over time, away from the current dual system approach to a more unified one in which all schools are in strong MATs. As part of that we will be taking a careful and detailed look at how better to hold MATs to account, including Ofsted’s role in that, to ensure MATs are delivering for children. The schools White Paper, which we expect to publish in early 2022, will articulate a long-term vision of how our education system can deliver on the Government’s priorities of building back better after the pandemic and levelling up across the country.
Whatever the future accountability arrangements are, they will need to be developed on the basis of ensuring proportionality and coherence, as well as transparency; it is in no one’s interest for us to micromanage MATs, to stifle their innovation or stamp over their autonomy. Those are the very things that mean the strongest MATs can make such an impact.
We also need to examine accountability at school and MAT level together, to ensure that arrangements do not overlap, confuse or create unnecessary additional burdens that get in the way. Importantly, we need to keep engaging closely with the sector, with organisations, agencies and individuals with a close interest and expertise—I very much include my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North in that—to work through the issues and be confident that the system delivers. We need to get the right accountability balance, and we will not make changes until we are sure that we have it.
The hon. Member for Hove challenged me with a number of question, and I appreciate that I have not been able to answer them all directly today. However, I can confirm that this is an area that we will keep under active consideration. As we move forward with our school system reforms, we will need an accountability system that empowers trusts and ensures that they are meeting the needs of our young people, and I expect Ofsted will play an important role in that. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North again on bringing forward this important debate.
I am delighted to hear about the schools White Paper—the Zahawi-Walker legacy document —that will be launched next year. I will absolutely be pushing for my ten-minute rule Bill to play a key part in that. I am obviously happy to always try to be flexible and fair, but I think—we heard it from Peter Kyle—that this is something that brings everyone, across the House, together. We want the very best for our young people and therefore want the very best education to be accessed.
I could not agree more with the hon. Member for Hove; none of the multi-academy trusts I have spoken to fear this idea, because they believe firmly in what they do. I think the overwhelming majority of multi-academy trusts do their best, work hard, spend their money correctly and invest in the schools within their trusts, and I think they have no problem with it. The only ones that will be worried about are those that do not want to face the scrutiny. That gives the DFE the power to get rid of them—disband these ones—and broker new deals with good existing multi-academy trusts to then come in and take over.
I like to be a bit punchy every now and again, and the hon. Member for Hove is fantastic when he gets going about the Government’s record, so I could not help but remind myself of a few facts. At the end of the day, when the Conservative party came to power in 2010, about a year before I entered the teaching profession, the legacy left by the Labour party was that the Confederation of British Industry stated that employers had lost confidence in Britain’s exams, the Wolf Review found some courses
“fail to promote progression into either stable, paid employment or higher level education”,
and some 350,000 young people had been let down by courses that had little or no labour market value. In 2008, the Sutton Trust found that only 40 pupils out of the 80,000 eligible for free school meals went on to Oxbridge, and in May 2010, the Office for Fair Access said that by the mid-2000s the most advantaged 20% were
“seven times more likely than the most disadvantaged 40% to attend the most selective institutions.”
We only have to look at Labour-run Wales where education standards are falling down the league tables. It is an abomination and Mr Drakeford should be ashamed of himself. He should be held to account for his dismal record in failing to deliver for the people of Wales.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s words, and his challenge and scrutiny of Labour’s record. I make the simple point to him that when Labour came to power in 1997, just over 40% of students were getting five GCSEs including maths and English. By the time we finished in power, it was almost 80%. On a range of different measures, outcomes were more than doubled. If he criticises the legacy that Labour left, can he picture what we inherited last time his party left office?
Apologies, Mr Robertson. The hon. Gentleman asked me to picture 1997 and put my head back in that time; I was seven years old when Tony Blair came to power, so it is hard for me to fathom and picture that. Obviously, I had to suffer through the Labour doldrums in that education system, but I am grateful that I had a fantastic school and an inspirational teacher there, who was, by the way, a Labour councillor in Tamworth and who is a role model for me.
Finally, on the subject of the “not education union”, Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney need to resign with immediate effect. They are an abomination to the profession. I will come up to their offices, pack their stuff and send it to their houses. The National Education Union is a disgrace.
Going back to the most important point in the debate, Ofsted want there to be inspections of multi-academy trusts and there is cross-party consensus on that. As we have heard from Members, multi-academy trusts that are really well run are not afraid of this. I hope in the White Paper, the Zahawi-Walker legacy document, we will see some fantastic innovation to turbocharge these schools and multi-academy trusts, and ensure that kids in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are no longer forgotten and left behind.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the Ofsted inspection of multi-academy trusts.