The Minister for School Standards (Mr Robin Walker)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hove (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 the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (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 the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (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 the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (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.