Advice to Ofsted on the importance of school autonomy for successful MAT inspections

Comment by DENISE INWOOD, managing director of BlueSky

Meeting the needs of reality

Comment by

MATTHEW COOPER, director of postgraduate programmes at Arden University

A new year traditionally signals a new start – although in education we always seem to have plenty of those. Coming up next on the horizon is likely to be an Ofsted inspection framework for multi-academy trusts (MATs). Ofsted’s 2017-22 strategic plan, published last autumn, signalled its intentions in this area, stating that: “In the coming months, we will work with the Department for Education to develop new approaches and expertise to allow us to better scrutinise education, training and care structures, including at the multi-academy trust level.”

This means that the inspectorate would scrutinise MATs – and in fact any executive body overseeing a federation or any grouping of schools - as well as the individual schools themselves.

As Ofsted’s director of corporate strategy, Luke Tryl, has said, inspection legislation hasn’t kept pace with some of the huge changes in the structure of education, so MAT inspection is really just about making sure that Ofsted reflects the educational landscape as it is now.

While we can’t second guess how this would work, while Ofsted work on the details and the change in the law that would be required, I would like to offer a few reflections of my own.

As a former senior leader, I know that any successful inspection system will require transparent and standardised operational practices. Executive boards for MATs, federations and any school group will need instant access to granular empirical detail from the schools, so that they can intervene when necessary and readily provide the data and reports required for inspection. They also need to be able to drive their own agenda and standards. But it’s also imperative that the schools themselves retain their autonomy so that head teachers can retain responsibility for school improvement and the performance of their staff. As they integrate into MATs they can’t lose sight of their responsibility to drive school improvement. That principle should never be removed.

Becoming part of a MAT doesn’t absolve a school from its obligations in this area so head teachers need to ensure they have robust processes in place to drive the school improvement agenda. As we are all too aware, it is not unknown for a school graded as ‘outstanding’ for many years to lose that status and plummet dramatically, particularly because inspections of ‘outstanding’ schools are few and far between as long as data shows they are ‘maintaining performance’. So schools must always be mindful of and remain active in the maintenance and delivery of internal practices and procedures necessary to further the school improvement agenda. MATs need to achieve a fine balance between supporting schools, while also enabling them to remain accountable for their own performance. My advice to Ofsted as they work on the new remit is to never forget the importance of head teacher autonomy and school self-evaluation. Then the MAT’s remit is to support that.

Further, my advice to schools is to have a healthy regard for Ofsted without letting it lead the system. If organisational processes are tight, transparent and consistent - and everyone understands them - heads are then free to focus on direction and to get their leadership and vision right. If the school system itself can define and deliver excellence then the system will succeed.

January 2018

As an academic manager, I deal with management issues every day. Rarely do these issues fall into a neat little box which one might be able to label with a specific management function. For example, if the issue pertains to a marketing plan, then of course there are financial and staffing implications. If the issue is related to staffing, then again there are often financial or budgetary aspects to consider. So, where am I going with this? The majority of workplace issues are cross-cutting, and they impact upon more than one function of business. Yet nowadays, almost all business programmes are still designed and delivered in a siloed fashion, which doesn’t aid comprehension with regards to the level of interdependency between these functions.

This approach of studying one business function at a time has long been the favoured angle of attack for many HE providers, as it is much easier to design, deliver, and operationalise in general. These traditional programmes offer a solid base for both learners and lecturers, having proved their education worth throughout the years. At this point, my father would interject with: “Since when is anything worthwhile ever easy!?” I think he would have a point - why take the path of least resistance? Isn’t it better to develop a programme that revels in the interconnectedness of these functions? It would then create graduating students that are far better suited for the dynamic management environment we currently find ourselves in. To develop business and management programmes like this is in fact hard work: it requires staff who are not faculty focused and a team that is happy to dip a toe outside of the box. In short, the process is often painful but worthwhile, as this becomes a learning experience for the institution as well as for the students. For example, each of our MBA modules contain elements of finance, HRM, marketing, operations, and strategic management. Granted, these are not in equal proportions, but then life isn’t like that! The point is that it works, students enjoy the programme, and they find it easier to relate their studies to their industry experience. When students graduate and leave school to face real world issues in real world time, they will be better equipped to make informed and effective decisions that have genuine cross-departmental impacts. They will also be able to move with greater agility from the micro to the macro, from the operational to the strategic, and from the insular to the progressive.

These attributes are vital skills for any management graduate in today’s dynamic environment. Increasingly, students are realising this, and therefore are buying into this kind of cross-cutting qualification. They look for a learning experience that will give them the upper hand - be it during an interview or later on in the workplace. What a strange dichotomy it is, that a non-normal product can in fact be closer to reality than a normal siloed one! Any higher education provider that is truly committed to its students’ interests and offering a valuable learning experience that reflects the needs of the working environment should aim to embrace this dichotomy. 21

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