School oversight and intervention - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2  Intervening in underperforming schools

13. When a school has been identified as underperforming there are three main formal interventions, as described in paragraph 11 above. The NAO report shows that the Department and other oversight bodies do not always react consistently when schools merit intervention, and the Department was unable to explain why this is. In particular, analysis shows that, in September 2013, there were 179 open academies that met the Department's criteria for a warning notice owing to poor educational performance, but the Department only sent notices to 15. In 141 out of the 179 cases, the Department had not even identified the schools as being eligible for intervention.[31]

14. Similarly, when the National Audit Office looked at records from the Agency, it found 4 cases of suspected fraud where schools had received financial notices to improve, but a further 7 such cases where they had not. The Agency had not kept sufficiently good records to justify the different approaches taken.[32] We questioned both the Department and the Agency about these findings and they acknowledged that they had not done enough to record the basis for judgements about when to intervene and that this had created a risk of inconsistency. They told us they were planning to demonstrate greater consistency in future. [33]

15. The effectiveness of formal interventions varies, and many underperforming schools improve without formal intervention. The NAO analysis of Ofsted ratings for all schools inspected in 2012/13 identified those that had been less than 'good' at their previous inspection. Some of these schools had received formal interventions in the interim, but these interventions were associated with a range of outcomes; 48% (62) of schools had improved, 39% (50) had stayed the same, and 13% (17) had deteriorated at the time of their next inspection. The NAO's analysis shows that, while the apparent impact of different kinds of formal intervention varies significantly, the appointment of interim executive boards is associated with most improvement. The National Governors Association agreed that, in its experience, interim executive boards were often a very good way of moving a school out of serious difficulties. Meanwhile, 59% (2,181 out of 3,696) of schools that were less than 'good' but received no formal intervention also improved. The National Governors Association told us that it was surprised that such a high proportion of schools improved without formal intervention.[34]

16. Overall, the key finding of the analysis was that the Department did not know enough about what makes for effective interventions. It has not sought to understand the costs and effectiveness of different interventions and it acknowledged in answer that it could know more. However, it did not provide details of any further work that it has underway at present.[35]

17. Specifically with regard to sponsored academies, the Department drew our attention to the significant improvements that sponsors can make when the academy policy works well.[36] However, it accepted that its own and others' analyses, for example that recently issued by the Sutton Trust, showed too much variation in the effectiveness of sponsors and academy chains. Ofsted agreed, but recognised that academy chains often have to work in challenging circumstances. The inspectorate stressed that in order for a chain to be successful it needed high-quality leadership at every level of management, including head teachers, governors, trustees and chief executives.[37] The Chief Inspector of Schools said that, when chains failed, "the quality of leadership at the centre of the chain has not been good enough and the trusteeship has not been good enough".[38]

18. We challenged the Department about whether its oversight of academy sponsors had kept pace with the expansion of the academies programme. We asked witnesses if the Department had taken an optimistic view of some sponsors' capacity to grow.[39] Ofsted told us that the Department had allowed some sponsors to expand "exponentially, without the capacity to make the necessary improvements" at schools they took over.[40] Currently, there are 18 sponsors that the Department is not allowing to grow further because of poor performance in some of their schools. These sponsors run 163 academies that currently contain a combined total of 94,000 pupils.[41] Two of the chains account for the majority of schools affected: AET and E-Act, which in total run 108 academies.[42] The Department could not explain why it had allowed these chains to become so big before pausing their growth.[43]

19. We heard about the importance of having an independent view of the effectiveness of academy sponsors. Ofsted currently inspects local authority school improvement services, but does not have the same power to inspect sponsors' and academy chains' central functions. We asked Ofsted whether it could get sufficient information about sponsors and academy chains from its focussed inspections of groups of schools that they run. The Chief Inspector of Schools told us that his preference was to have the same powers as he has for local authority school improvement services. He also said that he felt sponsors and chains might welcome the greater transparency that statutory inspection might bring, as it would enable Ofsted to publish a clear inspection framework.[44]

31   Q 142; C&AG's Report, para 3.5 Back

32   Qq 193-195; C&AG's Report, para 3.8 Back

33   Qq 145 and 195 Back

34   Qq 12-14; 92-98; C&AG's Report, figure 9, para 3.18 Back

35   Q 92 Back

36   Q 154 Back

37   Q 102 Back

38   Q 181 Back

39   Qq 146, 171 Back

40   Q 157 Back

41   Supplementary written evidence provided by the Department Back

42   Qq 166-167 Back

43   Qq 166 - 171 Back

44   Qq 99-100 Back

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Prepared 30 January 2015