Although they are performed by Ofsted, the assessments carried out on multi-academy trusts (MATs) are a different beast from the inspections that individual schools have become used to.
In fact, multi-academy trust summary evaluations – or MATSEs – are not officially inspections at all, even though they draw on information gathered during the inspection of individual academies. They are only carried out with the agreement of the MAT in question and they don’t result in a grade.
Ofsted says: “The aim of a MATSE is to recognise a trust’s positive impact on the quality of education in its academies and to give the trust helpful recommendations on aspects of its work that could be improved.”
But the fact that the evaluations cover the effectiveness of a trust’s structures – along with the pillars of effective governance – means the finance team will want to be prepared to show that public money is being effectively spent.
What are MATSEs for and what do they cover?
On the Department for Education website, Ofsted puts it like this:
“During a MATSE, inspectors explore the extent to which the trust is delivering high quality education and improving pupils’ achievement across the academies in the trust. They consider a range of information about the trust, including academy inspection outcomes and information gathered through discussions with trust leads and visits to some of the trust’s academies.”
Stage one of the MATSE process consists of the routine inspections that are carried out on individual academies under Ofsted’s usual inspection framework.
Stage two happens after Ofsted selects a MAT for summary evaluation. It does this after looking at inspections which have taken place in individual academies over a maximum of two previous terms.
“In selecting trusts for summary evaluations, we aim to cover a broad range of trusts, not just those that may be a cause for concern,” it says.
“This is to give us an accurate and balanced understanding of the contribution that trusts make to the school system, to highlight areas of strength that may be disseminated more widely and to provide an insight into any weaknesses.”
How a stage two MATSE and site visit works
A lead inspector will phone a MAT up to five days before a stage two visit. If the trust does not agree to the assessment, the inspector will notify the Department for Education’s (DfE) regional director. The trust can also ask for a deferral.
The initial phone conversation will cover the practicalities of the assessment. But the inspector will also seek to clarify the structure of the trust, discuss the stage one inspections and ask for the CEO’s evaluation of the trust’s strengths and weaknesses.
Then comes the site visit:
- The visit will take place over the course of a week, during the trust’s normal office hours and not normally outside 9am-6pm. With the agreement of the trust, inspectors will visit a sample of its academies.
- The lead inspector will meet the trust’s CEO or other representatives on the first day to introduce the team.
- The trust will not be expected to prepare evidence for the inspectors, and existing evidence will be accepted in whatever form it takes.
- There will be meetings with key leaders to discuss any areas identified in the inspectors’ preparation.
- Inspectors will hold separate meetings with trustees, without the CEO or other leaders present.
- Inspectors will offer verbal feedback to leaders, staff and trustees during the visit.
- Before the end of stage two, inspectors will ensure the trust is clear about what the inspectors see as the strengths and weaknesses of its education.
- On the final day, inspectors will agree provisional findings at a meeting which senior staff and trustees may attend as observers. Inspectors will give feedback, subject to moderation and quality assurance by Ofsted staff.
Findings are sent out in a letter to the CEO and the trust will normally have five working days to comment before the letter is published on Ofsted’s website.
What do MATSEs mean for the finance team?
Ofsted’s guidance on MATSEs does not use the words “finance” or “financial”, but finance officers will want to consider what it says under the heading of “governance”.
It says inspectors will understand and consider the individual trust’s governance structure – and that they will also “consider the 3 core functions of governance set out in the DfE’s governance handbook”.
The core functions of governance, set out in that handbook, are these:
- Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction;
- Holding executive leaders to account for the educational performance of the organisation and its pupils, and the effective and efficient performance management of staff;
- Overseeing the financial performance of the organisation and making sure its money is well spent.
It is that third core function, of course, which will be on the minds of the finance team.
How does a MAT oversee financial performance?
The governance handbook says a MAT should ensure the trust’s board has at least one member with specific, relevant skills and experience of financial matters.
That person should build a relationship with the school business professional (SBP) – a term which, in the case of a large MAT, can mean the chief finance officer or chief operating officer. Everyone on the board should have a basic understanding of the financial cycle and the legal requirements on accountability and spending.
Ofsted says trust boards should be asking the right questions, including:
- Are resources allocated in line with strategic priorities?
- Does the organisation have a clear budget forecast, ideally for three years?
- Does it have sufficient reserves to cover major changes such as restructuring?
- Is the organisation making best use of its budget, e.g. by integrating curriculum planning with financial planning?
- Does the organisation plan its budgets on a “bottom-up” basis, based on its curriculum planning, or does it simply make minor adjustments to last year’s budget?
- What sources of financial data and tools are used to ensure assets and resources are being used efficiently?
- How can better value for money be achieved?
- Is the organisation complying with procurement rules and ensuring it gets the best deal when buying goods and services?
- Is the organisation collaborating with other schools to generate efficiencies?
Resources for MATs
The Department for Education has produced a host of information that can help trusts ensure they are carrying out the right financial oversight. These include:
- Information and guidance to help schools save money on day-to-day costs;
- Guidance for governors and trustees to check whether their organisation is managing resources effectively;
- Guidance on meeting basic standards for financial health and resource management;
- A resource management self-assessment checklist.
If the board is asking the right questions – and the finance professionals are producing the information to answer those questions – the MAT’s summary evaluation may be a useful experience rather than a nerve-wracking one.
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