Why did the top education system in the world get rid of school inspectors?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Pasi Sahlberg was the last Chief Inspector for schools in Finland. After that the government got rid of these "hanging judges", turning them into supportive advisers, and leaving schools to inspect themselves. Here, in his talk in the House of Commons this May, he explains the rationale behind the decision. In the talk below, he identifies "GERM" -- the Global Education Reform Movement -- as being responsible for standardised testing, teacher accountability, school inspections and a centrally imposed curriculum. He says that GERM has lowered standards, not raised them. It's only when you start trusting teachers that standards go up. I hope you enjoying another gem from my new educational guru; he really has inspired me to think again about so many things. Please forgive the rather gleeful tone in the headlines that start this video; I realise now I went a bit over the top! Of course, Finnish schools are not the best because they got rid of inspectors -- as I claim rather ironically at the beginning of the video -- but this was one element in them becoming top class. I am a teacher who has had two decades at the mercy of Ofsted, or managers threatening me with Ofsted; I've come to think that possibly they do more harm than good and that their role should be much more supportive. Certainly the new Ofsted framework is nonsensically draconian, getting inspectors to make snap judgements on things that they know nothing about. I've heard that there is even disquiet in the Tory shires about these inspections because the inspectors are failing perfectly good rural schools on quite arbitrary grounds. Gove's Gradgrind tactics are beginning to lose the Conservatives votes.


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Gary Foskett's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 08:20

"Assessing our students against their own abilities and potential." It's obvious, really.
Excellent piece, Francis. I was very sorry I wasn't able to attend this event, so thanks for this report on it.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 09:02

Certainly the new Ofsted framework is nonsensically draconian..

Francis, could you spell out what's worse about the new 2012 framework? I thought you'd welcome the reduction/simplification in Ofsted's role. I also remember reading a post by you that suggested that that Ofsted were being less prescriptive and more sensible about lesson observations.

My feeling is that Ofsted was at its worst over the past eight or so years and is now heading in broadly the right direction.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 09:21

Would you be happier if Francis had said the framework was just punitive? The point of the post - and the Finnish example - is that Finland's education success is due to a number of factors (few of which have been adopted or encouraged here, especially by Gove) one of which is brushing away inspections, tests and competition between schools and replacing it with support and trust. And look at the difference. Those nations including UK and USA, with their obssession with inspections and standardized tests, remain average. Finland has risen to the top. They are clearly doing something right.

I'm not sure when Michael Wilshaw left the event but I think he was still there when he heard Pasi Sahlberg say that after his own tenure, the Finnish government got rid of their inspectorate. He would have heard all the evidence against testing, long schools hours, one size fits all education though.

You may feel that Oftsted was ad its worst over the past years but the question here is, given Finland's example, is Ofsted bad for schools?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 12:42

Ricky Ofsted as an organisation has a life, energy and mindset of it's own which is far beyond the directions it is given from above now.

It's just like the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. One of the problems the people at the top had was that they actually believed the Red Guard was 're-educating the enemies of the state' and not that elements of it were going round beating up and disposing of the intellectuals who thought that it wasn't a good idea to melt down everyone's teaspoons - which it wasn't. Then of course there were the members of the Red Guard who were okay - who didn't believe what was going on in other sections of it either. Then as it all gained momentum all sorts of secret channels for reporting people were set up and people realised there were quotas of people who had to be reported so they reported each other in order to avoid the chop themselves.

This happened because the Red Guard were outside the law and were accountable to no-one and in our discussion we have discovered that Ofsted are the same regarding their behaviour with state schools. Nobody in a vulnerable schools (which includes the vast majority of secondary schools in challenging areas) can focus on doing what is right for their community because they are all 100% focused on Ofsted.

This government and Sir Michael have created a completely unrealistic picture of what secondary schools in challenging areas should be like. This puts the heads under unmanageable political strain. Being a head of a secondary school is an extremely difficult job. In the past heads had substantial support from their LAs to become established and expert in their roles. These days they are instead reported anonymously by people around them who think their schools should look like Mossbourne academy and that the head should be sacked because it doesn't, Ofsted arrive and the head is removed in favour of someone much younger and more ignorant who is silly enough to believe that they can make that school just like Mossbourne.

I have had concerns about Ofsted for quite a while, but it was always my anticipation that my concerns would be answered with common sense response which accepted them but rationalised them in a wider context. But this Ofsted directorate cannot and will not do that as I found out when Graham Stuart advised them they should talk to me and that is because they can't and won't, which is absolutely unacceptable.

"My feeling is that Ofsted was at its worst over the past eight or so years and is now heading in broadly the right direction."
I can understand why you would feel that but it is absolutely not the case. Things are getting much worse very fast. I really can't emphasise strongly enough how bad it is - it's utterly horrific. So many teacher I know are desperate to leave teaching. Leaving takes time but they are planning it. Pasi pointed out that Finnish teachers stay in the profession while our teachers leave and that is a big part of our problem.

"We would not be starting from that same place if we were to abolish Ofsted."
So don't abolish Ofsted. And don't abolish inspection in education.
But do, please, let us have an inspectorate which abides by Hampton and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act and do please give the headship unions some input into inspectors being accountable.

And to be honest Ricky the current directorate need to go. They're massively overpaid and they are not credible. If there are individuals who are credible let the headship unions select them and designate them credible. And as I've said before this government should be looking to use the expertise of other regulators at the HSE and so on to help them reconfigure Ofsted.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 09:41


There's a bit of a chicken and egg dilemma about all of this.

Finland can afford not to have an Ofsted-style quality assurance regime because its teachers are excellent, educated to the highest standard and are given considerable professional autonomy by municipalities.

We would not be starting from that same place if we were to abolish Ofsted.

It is only in recent years (beginning under New Labour and greatly accelerated by Gove) that teaching has attracted the brightest and the best. For many years teaching was a poorly paid profession that entirely lacked any social prestige. Many of our schools are staffed in the middle and upper ranks by people who are pretty second rate and not worthy of the trust afforded to teachers in Finland.

Second, our LAs reinforce the erroneous views and attitudes of an entrenched establishment. They do not allow professional autonomy. Indeed, the enforce compliance and punish deviation from a narro ideological line.

When the profession is trustworthy, then, by all means, let's trust it.

Every time I see a teachers' union conference, though, I'm reminded how far we have to go to reach that threshold of trustworthiness.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 14:27


Gove/Wilshaw reduced the number of Ofsted inspection points from 27 to just 4. That alone should substantially reduce the anxiety/stress factor. Gove also scrapped the >100 page SEF in 2010 - again reducing pressure/stress/workload.

The 4 remaining inspection points:

Overall effectiveness of the school
Quality of teaching
Behaviour & safety

seem a sensible irreducible core.

The days when heads feared being slammed by Ofsted because the policy on paperclips wasn't in its correct place in the file have happily gone for ever. (Okay- that's an exaggeration, but not MUCH of an exaggeration actually).

As the lady said: "Rejoice....rejoice!"

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 10:03

"Ricky Tarr"

Quite. I agree with you about excellent teachers in Finland but as I said, getting rid of their inspectorate was one part of a whole that improved Finnish education. We need to do more than get rid of Ofsted - we also need to tackle social inequality, discourage the culture of competittion and high stakes testing and get rid of selection so , no, doing away with Ofsted isn't enough. But what the Finns did was truly radical - not the kind of conservative, regressive action which Michael Gove risibly tries to persuade us as being "radical". The Finns started from a new place. We are going backwards.

If the profession has been attracting the best in recent years, then sadly research now suggests that Gove's authoritarian, dismissive and punitive attitude towards teachers is demoralising them, so discouraging them from staying in the profession and from entering it in the first place http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/apr/07/teachers-poll-reveals-cr.... What is the point, when Academies force you to burn out, your job is constantly on the line and subject to the whims and sliding floor targets of an Education Secretary who listent to yes men and not the teaching profesesion and who issues new and even more confusing diktats on a daily basis?

You parrot the myth that local authorities “control” schools, so to paraphrase you, this is a more correct description of education in Goveland:-

“Second, our Secretary for Education reinforces the erroneous views and attitudes of an entrenched establishment. They do not allow professional autonomy. Indeed, the enforce compliance and punish deviation from a narrow ideological line.”

Actually, every time I see a Cameron disciple on television, "though, I’m reminded how far we have to go to reach that threshold of trustworthiness." And I'm not just talking about Liam Fox. Or Jeremy Hunt.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 11:24

Ricky - you are right that teaching pays less than other professions. The OECD* found that starting salaries for teachers are generally high but low top wages may discourage teacher retention. On average, graduate teachers in England are paid less than graduates in other professions (Education at a Glance 2011 page 406).

You are, of course, being deliberately provocative when you talk about many schools being staff by people who are "pretty second rate". There is no evidence to support this. Your comment is unfortunately typical of the type of teacher bashing which has resulted in teacher morale falling.

Your view of LA control is incorrect. Local authorities have no control over what is taught in schools, their influence is limited to admissions and the back-room services provided to its maintained schools . The curriculum control imposed on schools has come from central government ever since the establishment of the National Curriculum in the late 80s.

Please could you explain "the erroneous views and attitudes of an entrenched establishment". I should appreciate your take on this oft-repeated soundbite.

*OECD Economic Survey 2011 not available freely on internet.


Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 14:39

But the example remains that the best systems in the world don't have to "inspect". What we actually need is an inspectorate to assess the performance of Gove himself and ask questions like -

i) Why have you allowed Academies to offer poor food to students?
ii) Why, after 2 years in office, have your reforms not worked - Academies still underperform when compared to maintain schools and

The 4 remaining inspection points:

Overall effectiveness of Gove and the DfE (slow, opaque, riddled with dodgy SPADS)
Attainment/achievement (polarised education, two tier system, creeping privatisation and selection)
Quality of policies (mainly authoritarian, bullying, one size fits all, punitive and chaotic, so poor really)
Behaviour and safety (sweets and crisps from Academy vending machines might make the kids hyper and obese)

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 20:36

Ricky you've asked two key questions. Why hasn't education improved despite the massive influx of money and why haven't the 2012 reforms to Ofsted improved things. I'll try and answer both those questions in this post. Of course I can't possibly answer them completely in short posts so please do probe further.

The first question - why hasn't education improved since the money started going in in the 1990s /since Ofsted?

First the obvious - in some ways it has improved and in other ways it has not. Putting aside the details of the argument as to whether or not it has improved there is an important insight you need.

20 years ago there were a lot of secondary schools where there was not obviously strong management. Teachers had a great deal more professional freedom. There was an expectation that a teacher had to be able to, in the main, do discipline for themselves. They had to be able to personally command the respect of their class by basically being a really good teacher. So you had more polarised teaching - there were some bullies and some who bored the kids into oblivion but there were quite a lot of real characters in the mix - teachers who got on with engaging kids and transforming their expectations in which ever way best suited the teacher and the child. It was expected that there would be a variety of teachers in a school and most students would find one or more teachers who they really respected and connected with and they would put up with the rest for the sake of a positive experience with the teacher who mattered to them.

It was a completely different world. Professional communities throve and there were some blindingly brilliant academics on the front line of teaching who mixed freely with the top HMIs, the people from the exam boards, the academics in university and so on. People moved freely between the different areas of education. The professional associations in maths education were particularly strong and internationally well respected and I understand completely why Pasi Sahlberg said he'd been inspired by them.

A lot of these schools with substantial freedom were very well led. They were led by 'leaders' rather than managers. These leaders were people who commanded the respect of their peers and could lead when they needed to but in general just worked hard to listen to, support and co-ordinate their staff and to be semi-permeable membranes between their schools and the outside world. Some of the schools with substantial freedom were not well led and it was these schools Ofsted was set up to find. But Ofsted didn't reliably discriminate between the two types of school. Some inspectors could but other couldn't. It was also the case that some of the schools where everything appeared very organised and everyone was behaving in the same way were not good schools either (and some were) but Ofsted liked them and they were well rated.

This context and the rise of managerialism caused schools to move towards having strong management - which effectively eradicated a great deal of the professional freedom teachers had been used to. Leadership was out, managerialism and Ofsted-proof lessons where everyone knows precisely what everyone else is doing all the time were in. Ofsted were supposed to be able to tell the difference between lessons that were out of control and lessons where complex teaching methodologies which looked rather chaotic were in use. At the beginning they could. As time went on they became less and less reliable and the complex methodologies tended to be labelled 'satisfactory', (especially after the criteria changed in 2007/8) and satifactory became a catch all for anything which was clearly not a cause for concern but inspectors didn't understand.

More and more everyone started to revert to a system of mediocracy - teaching and organising schools in a particular 'safe' way to please Ofsted. The weakening of the LAs accelerated this process as traditional 'leader' heads need a support network around them as they are frequently challenged, especially in their early years. In effect the old style heads disappeared as they retired.

So what happened in 2012?
Two key things spring to mind.
Firstly - the new culture of satisfactory being unsatisfactory and everything being downgraded was completely disastrous as it put all that variety which should have been outstanding (and was until the categories were rewritten in 2007/8) and had been put down to satisfactory into unsatisfactory. Absolutely disastrous. I just can't express how weak a lot of the inspectors are now. If the students aren't sad quietly in rows a lot of them simply haven't a clue.

The other thing was that the framework attempted to become 'more intelligent' and in doing so it didn't lift the 'safe zone' upwards, it dissolved it into complete chaos. Out went mediocre as being the safe place to be and in came ??????? .... basically there is no safe place to be. At least before there was a common core of ways you could teach and organise a school which would mean you were safe from the hell of special measures. Now, although there is intended to be, in reality the quality of the inspections going on is so low there isn't. The heads who know this are being forcibly replaced with younger ones who don't yet see the writing on the wall.

Those at the top are not seeing it. They are focusing on free schools and a select bunch of schools which present to them what they want to see and the vast bulk of the rest of state education is collapsing fast. It's not so bad in primaries in general by the way - strong communities are able to protect their good primaries. It's the secondaries in challenging areas that are far and away most deeply hit. It's also not particularly easy to see what's happening as where schools are put into special measures there will be plenty of people pointing the finger of blame at each other and nobody blaming Ofsted because they are so totally unaccountable there is no point in even considering blaming them.

It just breaks my heart apart to see what my teacher friends all over the country are going though. This is hell. And it is also totally unnecessary. Who in their right mind would think it's appropriate to have an unaccountable regulator in state education?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 14:12

You are, of course, being deliberately provocative when you talk about many schools being staff by people who are “pretty second rate”.

I don't mean to be provocative, Janet. Just accurate. I'm sure I don't need to quote you chapter and verse from all those Ofsted inspections that find the standards of teaching in many classes some way short of good. Fifteen years ago teachers said the reason state schools were so bad was that they were underfunded. Since then spending has tripled. I don't see a corresponding increase in quality.

Your view of LA control is incorrect.

It is not. They do not need to have hands on, day to day, control of every aspect of school life to do what I said they do. I have a great deal of experience of how they use their power to foster cronies and browbeat opponents. The government needs to clear out the whole rats nest. And they will.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 22:45

You'll have to start acting like other professionals and insist on more ability for self regulation by taking responsbility and risk for all your actions, including whether or not children and parents want to use your services. Teachers, at least in the state sector, comprising most teachers, are essentially pseudo-professional, instructed what to do by political masters whether that is the minister, LA or OFSTED.

This is partly a legacy issue of state universal provision and the mindset of so many teachers as essentially unionised civil servants. At least academies mean teachers can start running schools with a lot more autonomy like real professionals. They can outright refuse their LAs on many issues even if not OFSTED.

If you want real professional freedom start acting like other professionals, otherwise like it or lump it with OFSTED and all the other state interference.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 23/05/2012 - 06:05

Ben why do you think it's appropriate that all the other industries in the UK and private and public schools have regulators who are obliged to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act which puts into law the standards which were derived to be best practice in inspection and regulation in 2005 but Ofsted should to totally unaccountable to anyone in it's actions with state schools?

Do you have any relevant experience in this area which qualifies you to comment?

Peter's picture
Wed, 23/05/2012 - 13:17

A certain M Gove, apparently

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 12:11

Francis Finland now has the kind of inspectorate it was always intended we would have when Ofsted was created. If it was you sitting next to me last Thursday perhaps you overheard the discussion I've described in the paragraph on this subject in my blog:
http://mathseducationandallthat.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/pasi-sahlbergs-ta... (It's the paragraph which starts 'Pasi got himself appointed....')

John Bald's picture
Tue, 18/12/2012 - 12:10

Hi, Rebecca. I've just watched the Finnish inspector, and was surprised at the end to see that they hadn't abolished inspection, but delegated it to local authorities. Crosland did that here in 1965-7 and we ended with local tyrannies who could impose their own views on people - not least on maths teachers and reading teachers. I've quoted the case of one of these demigods who denied a perfectly good deputy a headship just because he didn't like her voice.

I think Finland is a much more cohesive society than ours, with fewer social problems, and fewer conflicts. The inspectors I know would be put up against the wall by the Red Guard, by the way. I don't think they approve of the way Ofsted has operated since 2005 any more than you do. For a start, they can't get enough evidence on which to base their judgements.

PJB's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 19:58

"...Creon, as head of state, embodies all the certainty, arrogance and myopia of inflexible authority....Eccleston's Creon is not evil but fatally in thrall, like many modern politicians, to the idea that authority is somehow inviolable." Why does Michael Billington's review of Antigone in the Guardian make me think of Gove & his OFSTED squads? I studied 20th century history at O level, getting an "A" grade in 1974. I can tell Mr Gove - centralised control & fear? Uncle Joe would be proud!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 01/06/2012 - 20:10

Hmm - looks too close to the bone to be enjoyable.

PJB's picture
Sat, 02/06/2012 - 10:04

I don't find anything to enjoy about what we see being done to education at the moment.

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