Academy chains should face Ofsted inspection, say MPs
Ofsted should be given powers to inspect organisations that run chains of academies, says a report from a cross-party committee of MPs.
The Education Select Committee wants to improve the way groups of schools work together in partnerships.
More than half of secondary schools in England are now academies, operating outside local authority control.
Graham Stuart, committee chairman, said schools needed clearer incentives to "look beyond their own school gate".
Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has previously said he believes that sponsors of such academy chains should face inspections.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "Ofsted already inspects all school and academy performance, while the Department for Education examines the performance of chains.
"Where academies are underperforming, we take action - this can involve issuing a pre-warning notice and ultimately changing the sponsor if there is no improvement."
The report by MPs has examined partnerships and co-operation between schools, against a background of greater school autonomy and different levels of accountability.
Mr Stuart says his committee supports giving schools "more freedom to innovate" but there also needs to be a "degree of co-ordination".
"Otherwise there is a danger that many schools will operate in isolation rather than in co-operation," said Mr Stuart.
The report says that while there is widespread support for the idea of raising standards through greater collaboration there is still a lack of incentive for schools to work together.
It argues that local authorities have a "critical role" in improving schools and calls on the government to clarify how they can act as brokers between local schools.
But with the expansion of academies, it says that academy chains will play an increasingly important part in helping schools to improve.
It warns of the need for co-ordination from this "middle tier", between individual schools and central government, particularly in areas where schools are at risk of underperforming.
The Education Select Committee MPs say that academy chains should be open to inspection by Ofsted, in the way that local authorities can be inspected.
The committee also argues there should be a mechanism to allow outstanding schools to leave academy chains, including without the approval of the organisation running the chain.
The MPs also raise concerns that some outstanding academies are not providing support for weaker neighbouring schools and the report calls for closer monitoring.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, giving evidence to the committee earlier this year, told MPs that there needed to be a level playing field in the accountability of organisations running groups of schools.
"We will be inspecting local authorities and we should inspect academy chains as well, if we identify underperformance," said the Ofsted chief.
"I have made that clear to the secretary of state. It is only fair and equitable that we do that. We have not got the same powers at the moment, but I look forward to receiving the powers to do that."
Sir Michael told MPs that there was an "ongoing discussion" with the Department for Education, but he thought the principle had been accepted.
He also backed the idea that academy chains could be ranked in performance tables in the same way as local authorities.
There are now 3,444 academies, representing 53% of secondary schools and 9% of primaries in England.
Among these there are 1,600 schools in academy chains, up from fewer than 900 in autumn 2012.
"Hundreds of schools are now collaborating on a scale never witnessed before - brilliant heads and teachers are working together, sharing best practice and driving improvement throughout the system, raising standards for their pupils," said a Department for Education spokesman.
Labour's schools minister Kevin Brennan said: "Labour has long argued that collaboration between schools is what is needed if we are to deliver a step-change in standards across all schools. In June, we said that all schools would have to demonstrate effective collaboration with weaker schools for them to be rated as outstanding by Ofsted.
"This report - by a cross-party group of MPs - is a damning indictment of David Cameron's schools policy that drives competition between schools instead of incentivising partnerships between them."