Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 5 of the Education Act 2005 to provide that Ofsted may inspect the governing bodies of Multi-Academy Trusts.
Mr Speaker, you have may heard me mention only a few times that I used to be a teacher and trade union representative, but having proudly worked in academies in London and Birmingham—I also have a partner who works in the sector—for over eight years before entering this place, I firmly believe that the most important thing we can achieve is to give our children the very best education. In my mind, there is no greater task that we have as MPs, and there can be no better investment than in our children’s futures.
I know that as a teacher and a Conservative, I am a bit of an outlier. There are not too many of us around, although I am delighted to count my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) among our ranks on these Benches.
The Conservatives’ record on education since 2010 is a proud one. The proportion of schools rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted has risen from 68% in 2010 to 86% in 2020. Between 2011 and 2019, the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers narrowed by 13% at age 11 and 9% at age 16. In 2019, 82% of year 1 pupils met the expected standard for reading, compared with just 58% when the light-touch phonics check was introduced.
The great Govian and Gibbian reforms have been key to that improvement, as a result of which almost 2 million more children are now in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. At the reforms’ heart has been the academy and free school programme, which has freed schools from local authority control, given parents more choice and granted schools more control over their curriculum, budgeting and staffing. Through those changes, we have been able to drive up standards across the country.
Since 2010, the Government have invested in academy trusts to be the vehicle of school improvement. Over half of children are now educated in academies and 42% of schools are now academies. Some 84% of academies are part of multi-academy trusts, or MATs, and as of August last year, there were 1,180 MATs, covering 7,680 academies between them. Of those, 70% oversee six schools or fewer, and 38% run two or three schools. There are also a small number of big beasts that oversee 20 schools or more.
Parents and teachers must have confidence in the leadership of academy trusts. Over the years, various scandals have appeared in the papers, such as trusts paying for the lease of a new Jaguar for their chief executive, trusts paying thousands for first-class travel and high-class hotel rooms, and even trusts paying for transatlantic flights. We regularly hear of trusts’ chief executives getting huge salaries of £100,000 or £200,000—and, in some cases, close to half a million pounds. I am a big supporter of the drive for academisation and hope that all schools will become academies. I am not against trusts expanding, but, where they are encouraged to do so, it must be for the right reasons.
Numerous funds have been created to encourage MATs to expand such as the regional academy growth fund and the trust capacity fund, but they have often resulted in trusts expanding beyond their means, and there is no formal way of assessing whether they are best placed to expand. As the evaluation of the regional academy growth fund found, one MAT took on 10 schools in a year despite a previous annual growth rate of only two or three. There must be fairness, transparency and accountability, because, as it stands, there is a glaring inconsistency.
Schools, including individual academies, and children’s social services are inspected by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission inspects hospital trusts, so why are multi-academy trusts not inspected, too? I worry that that loophole risks creating a new group of education authorities that are unaccountable to teachers, parents and pupils. To have a fair and consistent system, MATs and their leadership teams need to be accountable in the same way as teachers.
MATs at their best have been instrumental in turning around failing schools. Having previously been placed in special measures, Whitfield Valley Primary Academy in Fegg Hayes in my Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke constituency is now rated “good” by Ofsted, and with “outstanding” leadership, since becoming part of the Inspirational Learning Academies Trust in 2015. While that is a fantastic example of what trusts can achieve, sadly too many are not performing well. The root of the problem is the accountability regime.
Over the years, there have been calls for change. I thank the previous Education Committee, which in a 2017 report found that there was a gap in assessing the performance of MATs not fulfilled by either Ofsted or regional school commissioners. In 2018, Ofsted trialled a new approach to inspecting academies that involved a number of inspections of individual academies from a MAT taking place over a period of up to two terms. Following those inspections, Ofsted would visit the MAT’s head office to evaluate its effectiveness as a whole. That move towards assessing the trust itself rather than simply looking at individual academies was a shift in the right direction. However, as it stands, accountability measures remain heavily focused at school level and do not reflect the top-heavy leadership style of many MATs.
To harness the power of MATs properly, we need to look at their overall performance. I stress that my Bill is not about creating another layer of bureaucracy or more hoops for teachers to jump through. It is about adding accountability for the trustees of multi-academy trusts, and in my mind there should be no extra work for teachers. Through my Bill, the remit of Ofsted inspectors would be extended so that they must consider: the achievement of pupils across schools covered by the multi-academy trust; the success of the multi-academy trust in reversing educational underperformance; and the quality of leadership, financial management and governance of the multi-academy trust. Bringing MATs under the Ofsted inspection regime would ensure that they are playing their full role and, crucially, allow those truly doing excellent work to be recognised.
As the “Lost Learning” report that I co-authored with Onward and the New Schools Network earlier this year argued, we should be using multi-academy trusts
“much more aggressively as the engine of school improvement”.
We could hold them to account through the provisions of my Bill and assess them on their ability to turn around underperforming schools. Inspections of MATs would allow us to reward those that are well-performing and incentivise the best MATs with generous funding to take on struggling schools. There could be no clearer need for that, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
If levelling up is to mean anything, it must mean that children in places such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke can get the education that they need to go on to university, the skills they need to go on to an apprenticeship, and a chance to make the most of their talents and achieve their potential, no matter where in the country they go to school. To do that, we need to unleash the power of the best trusts to transform children’s lives around the entire country. Ultimately, that is what the Bill is about.
In the wake of the pandemic, the Bill is needed now more than ever. I am delighted that it has the support of a broad selection of hon. Members from all sides of the House. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Robert Halfon, Emma Hardy, David Simmonds, Dame Meg Hillier, David Johnston, Layla Moran, Brendan Clarke-Smith, Miriam Cates, Ian Mearns, Lee Anderson, Gareth Bacon and Jonathan Gullis, present the Bill.
Jonathan Gullis accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 January 2022, and to be printed (Bill 159).