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Education in brief: Ofsted has started inspecting academy chains

Global news


The Guardian

Ofsted visits chain of academies; could Theodore Agnew inspect himself?; telltale survey of civil servants; pupil numbers fall at free school; and the Sutton Trust: top people’s charity?

As the education secretary, Michael Gove, and minister David Laws apparently battle it out over whether Ofsted should inspect academy chains, news comes in that, it seems, the watchdog has already begun co-ordinated inspections of schools within chains.

Ofsted – keen to prove its independence from any “political agenda” over academies – has carried out near-simultaneous inspections of 16 schools run by England’s sixth-largest academy chain in the first of what may be a series of co-ordinated probes into “weaker” academy providers.

Just under half of the 34 academies within the E-Act chain were inspected last week and the week before, with at least one – Hartsbrook E-Act free school in Haringey, north London – understood to have been rated inadequate.

The move follows a statement in December’s annual report by Sir Michael Wilshaw (pictured below), chief inspector of schools, that Ofsted planned to “co-ordinate the inspection of the constituent schools in some weaker academy trusts”.

It seems unlikely to have pleased the education department (DfE), and casts fresh light on the rift between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over Ofsted-DfE relations. Last week, Laws, the Lib Dem schools minister, said Ofsted should be given new powers to inspect academy chains’ central operations. The inspection blitz on E-Act focused on individual schools. But it will still put the performance of the chain in the spotlight.

Five of the 17 E-Act schools that had been inspected before last month’s visits were already rated as inadequate. Last year, the chain was given a “financial notice to improve” by the DfE’s Education Funding Agency. Hartsbrook would be the third free school to fail an Ofsted inspection if the unofficial verdict of inspectors is confirmed.

An Ofsted spokeswoman confirmed: “Ofsted has just completed a series of scheduled inspections over a two-week period of 16 schools which are part of the E-Act multi-academy trust.

“During these visits, inspectors have been asking additional questions to ascertain the extent to which the support and challenge provided by the trust is helping to raise standards for pupils.” She would not say whether more chains would be inspected, or which ones.


Agnew and Ofsted – an imperfect fit?

The Ofsted-DfE Lib Dem-Conservative dispute has seen a spotlight thrown on Theodore Agnew, who has reportedly been lined up by Gove to take over the chairmanship of the inspectorate from the ousted Sally Morgan.

But eyebrows would certainly be raised were Agnew, a Tory donor and trustee of the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange, to be appointed. Agnew, an insurance and private equity magnate, is already a DfE non-executive director and has his own office and secretariat at the department. He also chairs the DfE’s “academies board”, reporting to the academies minister, Lord Nash.

Last year, the Eastern Daily Press  reported how Agnew had “become a pioneer of outsourcing to India” because it was possible to hire maths graduates there for £70 a month, rather than paying £1,000 for local recruits.

But it is perhaps his position in running his own academy chain – the Norfolk-based Inspiration Trust – that would invite most questions were Agnew to fill the Ofsted chair. With the watchdog supposed to report objectively on quality of schools irrespective of their type, how could someone so closely tied to the academies movement not be seen to compromise that impartiality? And which Ofsted official would dare tell Agnew that one of his schools had not come up to scratch?


Civil servant survey: some telltale figures

Confidence in the leadership of Gove’s department is plummeting among his own civil servants, the latest annual staff survey of 3,113 DfE officials, seen by Education Guardian, suggests. Only 32% agreed with the statement “I feel that DfE as a whole is managed well”, while 16% agreed that “when changes are made in DfE they are usually for the better”. Responses were more negative than in the previous survey, in 2012. More next time, we hope.


Pupils go missing at free school

A free school that opened only 18 months ago is in talks about making up to eight members of its staff redundant because of a budget crisis caused by a failure to recruit pupils. The Hawthorne’s free school in Sefton, Merseyside, replaced two secondaries that were closed by the local authority in 2012 because of an oversupply of school places.

The Hawthorne’s has revealed its plans after pupil numbers shrank from 432 on opening in September 2012 to around 350 last term. Now, with the school reporting only 44 first parental preferences for year 7 in September, it is planning to cut three lunchtime supervisors, a home-school liaison officer and up to four teachers, though it is set to retain eight senior managers.

DfE data shows that the school received £847,948 in extra “start-up” cash from the government, in addition to the normal per-pupil funding that every school receives. Yet a Sefton council report in March 2012 warned of 2,000 surplus places in the area.

A recent blog by local Lib Dem councillor Tony Robertson said the school had been wanted by parents. The school did not comment.


Top people at the Sutton Trust

And finally, the Sutton Trust charity recently issued a familiar warning  about the domination of the higher echelons of banking by the privately educated.

But should the trust not also be looking closer to home in its scrutiny? Its recently constituted advisory board, comprising 22 individuals who have donated to the trust, is dominated by people from finance, some seemingly fitting the pattern of coming from privileged backgrounds.

For example, Tim Bunting, a former Goldman Sachs partner, is a Wellington College old boy. Another board member, Stephen Brenninkmeijer, is listed on the website of the social investment firm he set up as “a member of the Brenninkmeijer family that founded the C&A clothing retail chain in 1841”. And Deborah Wolfson is a baronet’s daughter.

Are all board members, then, an advert for the social mobility the trust promotes? We asked the trust for information on the school backgrounds of its board members but it refused, saying: “The generous donations made by the Sutton Trust board ensure that we can provide opportunities for thousands of state-educated school students.”

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