Do We Need a "Middle Tier"?

Charlotte Chadwick's picture
Ahead of the launch of the (supposedly) independent Academies Commission, former Ofsted chief inspector Christine Gilbert gives TES her view on the middle tier question:

It is not the answer you would expect from someone who made their name leading local education authorities. But Christine Gilbert believes town halls should no longer be at the heart of school improvement and monitoring.


Nor, indeed, should local commissioners or any other kind of new "middle tier" idea currently being floated, the former Ofsted chief inspector argues. Ms Gilbert thinks the job should be left to schools themselves. "It would be the profession supporting the profession," she explains.

Is she right?
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Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 07:17

Why is the independent Academies Commission only supposedly independent?

England is very different to Finland in many ways, but, if lessons can be drawn, they perhaps indicate that schools should be given even more responsibility than they have at present, obviating the need for a middle tier:

'Finland is not very inspired of measuring education but we take educational assessment very seriously. This is perhaps because our definition of school success is very different compared to how success is understood in the United States or in much of the world. Successful school in Finland is one that is able to help all children to learn and fulfill their aspirations, both academic and non-academic. Many educators in Finland think that measuring of what matters in school is difficult, if not impossible. That’s why assessment of and in Finnish schools is first and foremost a responsibility of teachers and principal in school. They are reporting to parents and authorities how successful their school is in achieving commonly set goals. By this definition, school success is a subjective thing that varies from one school to another.

We don’t use term ‘accountability’ when we talk about what schools are expected to do in Finland. Instead, we expect that teachers and principals are responsible collectively for making all children successful in school. There is a big difference between social responsibility for all children’s learning in school and holding each teacher accountable for their own pupils’ achievement through data from standardized tests.......

Shared responsibility has created strong mutual trust within Finnish education system that is one frequently mentioned success factor of Finnish education. As a result, we don’t need external standardized tests, teacher evaluation or inspection to assure high quality.'

'Finland's comparative strength in developing the quality of education has been the key role given to local innovation and sharing of good practices within the system (Sahlberg
2006). Education policies in general have promoted strategies that Fullan (2005) calls ‘lateral capacity building’ in which schools learn from each other.........

I believe, however, that this is not a well developed strategy in
Finland yet, and thus represents an underutilized resource in education
system development.

Lateral capacity building mobilizes two important change forces: knowledge and innovation about educational change and productive practices on one hand, and shared identity on the other.

Reliance on lateral capacity building and learning from the past in school
improvement has also raised the role of leadership and school management in
Finland. Increasingly, school principals and education authorities in the
municipalities have been recruited according to professional excellence criteria
rather than that of political reward as it used to be.

School principals have become the key facilitators of professional development of their teaching staff and lateral cooperation with other schools. It is commonly recognized among school principals in Finland that promotion of cooperation rather than between school competition has been the key strategy in reaching out for better schools.'


Teaching in Finland, especially in secondary schools, is recognized as a
high profession. Part of that recognition raises from initial training of teachers
that is based on Masters Degrees and has strong scientific orientation. Hence, all
teachers are prepared for research-based teaching practice......

Secondary school curriculum reform in the mid-1990s revealed that teachers with high professional competency are quite motivated and easy to engage in school development processes in their own schools as well as in national and international projects (Sahlberg 2007). They also tend to work just as seriously at developing their own personal professional knowledge and skills.

Strengthened teacher and principal professionalism gradually shifted
the authority and locus of control from central administration to schools.

This 'lateral capacity building' is already happening in England by means of Academy chains:

'Academy chains are a positive development within the English education system. They are bringing innovation and systematic improvement and helping to raise attainment in some of the most deprived parts of the country.

They are nurturing an able new generation of school leaders with experience and expertise in leading in different contexts.

They are evolving new structures and roles for executive leaders.

They are using their economy of scale to drive efficiency and to organise support functions so that school leaders spend more time on their core business.

They are reinventing the concept of school governance so that
governors focus more clearly on strategy and performance.

They are standardising the best aspects of school improvement and driving new learning and practice through joint work across the academies in the chain.

They have the potential to make a huge contribution to the wider education system.

With the growth of Academy chains in England, surely school improvement and monitoring, as in Finland, can safely be left where it belongs, in the schools themselves, laterally cooperating with other schools in the area?

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 10:55

The RSA Academies Commission appears to be sponsored by CfBT, an academy chain. Slightly odd for a supposedly independent commission?!

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 08:58

Yes, she is right.

Instead of a fixed, one-size-fits-all model, we need to move to a "variable geometry" system for school support and school improvement.

Sometimes this will involve schools helping each other, forming formal or informal federations and alliances. Sometimes schools will club together to jointly afford independent consultants. (LAs very often put the job out to independent consultants themselves anyway, so the new system will just be cutting out the middle man).

The expertise, energy and enthusiasm is out there in the schools. Best to channel it through bespoke, pragmatic and particular arrangements. No bureaucracy. No churn.

Sarah's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 09:16

No she's absolutely wrong. Individual schools are not always sufficiently challenging about their own performance - sometimes through weak leadership, sometimes through weak or ineffectual governance.

The middle tier is also needed to ensure that the long term strategic planning of provision takes place. Even in early years provision where much of it is in private or voluntary hands there is the need for a middle tier which ensures sufficiency, builds capacity and shapes provision. Individual institutions are driven by their finances and performance targets to think purely or mainly about themselves - nowhere is this clearer than in the 14-19 strategy where the academisation of secondary schools has seen rapidly diminishing collaboration between institutions and a strong focus on trying to maintain bums on seats at individual schools and colleges. It's not the fault of the institutions themselves, it's the drivers which this government have put in place - they simply do not incentivise collaboration.

Anyone who has been involved with the creation of federations or other forms of collaborative working between schools knows that it often involves the painstaking work of a broker such as the local authority to bring the two partners together and help them negotiate the practicalities. I know that many schools welcome this sort of positive support.

This isn't about a lack of expertise, energy or enthusiasm in schools - it's about creating a supportive scaffold around which individual schools can create the networks they need to ensure a coherent system of education across an area. Leaving it to individual institutions is likely to mean it simply won't happen unless the school can see a very direct benefit for themselves. The current system sets them up in competition with other schools.

And who said it needs to be a one-size-fits-all model? Local authorities differ greatly in the way they organise themselves around schools.

The government have openly acknowledged that there is a strong strategic role for local authorities in commissioning provision, supporting improvement and ensuring fair access. Nobody seriously thinks you can leave it to an unregulated market.

I'd like to see how an individual institution that is no longer needed because the demographics have changed will argue for its own demise. Who is going to monitor housing developments as they come forward to ensure that school provision is planned for the long term in the right place to serve these new communities. The trouble which the free schools have had in finding appropriate sites and getting themselves set up goes to demonstrate that this requires long term work. Individual schools aren't established to do this - their focus is and should be the education of the children they have now. Without strategic planning there simply will not be sufficient school places created at the right time and in the right place.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 09:38

She is completely wrong. Apart from all the cogent reasons advanced by Sarah there is the issue of remote rural schools -particularly small primaries- where the practicality of working with partners means is simply doesn't always happen without some kind of co-ordinating body

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 13:32

Let me see now. Christine Gilbert was in charge of Ofsted during the Hampton Review into Inspection and Regulation, when the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act was past and when Ofsted became obliged to it two years later.

She systematically failed to engage with the intentions of the review or the law, choosing to appoint spads as directors instead of people who understood schools or inspection and regulation and to ensure those with concerns about current practice were ignored.

While other inspectorate bodies are properly accountable to the areas of society they regulated and worked hard to ensure their modes of practice were productive and not counter-productive, Christine Gilbert presided over and Ofsted which got rid of exceptionally able people who thought that following the law was a good idea and only promoted those who understood that their raison d'etre was to pander to politicians whims and therefore only promoted those who were sufficiently ignorant not to be aware of the horrific consequences to schools of this attitude.

Yippee - let's give Christine Gilbert charge of this important project. WHY???????

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 16:36


So far as I can see, Ofsted was required to give account to the Hampton Principles by the Legislative and Regulatory Reform (Regulatory Functions) (Amendment) Order 2009 - but this was compulsory only for Ofsted's regulation of private & third sector organizations. Extending that to its public sector work is discretionary.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 17:42

Thanks for this Ricky - here's the order:

I'm reading it and I'm not sure what it's purpose is. Since you've mentioned it please could you explain it's general purpose and the specific point which you think is relevant?

When I submitted a FOI request to Ofsted for their compliance procedures for the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act (2006) to which they became obliged in October 2008 they did not mention this Order as ammending their previous obligations. One director of Ofsted did assure me that the Michael Gove's education bill would exempt them from it but I scrutinised it and could not find any reason to suggest that he was telling the truth.

If you interpret the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act (2006) in the context in which it was intended (which is Hampton) as other regulators do it means it is ultravires for Ofsted to provide categories of quality of provision. It is their duty to work in a transparent and accountable way to establish the definitions of unsatisfactory provision (which can include a school failing in its duty to be actively involved in accredited systems of ongoing improvement and them not having robust systems of internal monitoring and communication or them not fulfilling their duty to report in a detailed way regarding their provision and so on) but they should not pro-actively categorise what is good and outstanding because this has been found to be seriously counterproductive practice. Where failures in the base stadard are found the action recommended must be proportional.

There are many other principles of good practice in inspection and regulation. For example other regulators are accountable to the industries they scrutinise (who generally fund them).

Ofsted seemed to be moving in this direction but it's my impression that they have politicked their way around Gove to put themselves even more strongly in the position where they can do what they like and are accountable to no-one because they have incompetent directors who don't have the skills to operate in any other way and who like their enormous salary cheques.

I wrote recently that Ofsted are to be subject to Judicial Review because this was reported on the BBC news, however sadly it turned out that this is not true. The issue was fudged. This a tragedy because Ofsted really should be subject to an Independent commission where not only the letter of the law but also the way in which it is interpreted by other regulators is examined. The key players in this should be the experts who advise other regulatory bodes and the NAHT reps. Ofsted are directly accountable to Michael Gove, so of course he could order such a review at any time, but I'm assuming he's captive to the fantasy OFSTED create that they need to be able to meet out huge punishments all the time and force schools up tick-box scales or schools will not improve. This is superfically plausible but totally untrue. If you speak to HMIs from other inspectorates who follow the systems of good practice and you listen the the ways in which they effect improvement you will hear them describe processes which make far more sense.

In my opinion Ofsted could do with being relocated to the North to get it away from the politicians and closer to the bodies of expertise in inspection and regulation. That would rapidly sort the wheat (the brilliant people who are in it because they care and despite the horrors of the organisation who would go anywhere to make Ofsted a credible organisation) from the chaff (the inadquate jobs for the boys network).

I blog a lot on and in discussion meet so many very brilliant and credible people who have walked away from being inspectors because the organisation and framework in which they were working was so horrific. There are a lot of people out there who are far better than many of our current inspectors who could be recruited back if they believed they would be working in an effective and balanced way in an organisation which was fit for purpose.

It is not necessary for inspectors to be practicing teachers but each inspector should be credible to the NAHT or a similar body representing head teachers as being able to fulfill the job they are doing and they should be prepared to teach again or gaing alternative creidble experience if they wish to widen the scope of situations they can inspect or if concerns are raised.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 17:51




and you will get a PDF of a 2009 BERR doc that makes it all clear. If you read the explanatory note to the order on your own link, that will be clear too. Since this risks getting off topic, I'll leave it at that.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 18:26

Are you saying that at some stage Ofsted have managed to get themselves a specific mandate to ignore all the systems of best practice in inspection and regulation for state schools Ricky? I have absolutely no doubt they have relentlessly tried to do so in their own interests and that it is entirely possible they have wangled such an exemption at some stage.

If it is the case that this was done under that last government this could be of huge political benefit to Michael Gove as he could fairly and squarely blame the last government for their stupidity and rapidly move to amend the problem. At the minute I think people in education would struggle to believe he intends to do anything which will really help them, but we are still only two years into this parliament and there is enough time for a rapid and effective move which ensured that state schools became entitled to the same standards of inspection as everyone else to have a drastic positive effect on the ground before the next election.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 18:40

In hand. See:

House of Commons
Education Committee
The role and
performance of Ofsted:
Responses from the
Government and
Ofsted to the Second
Report of the
Session 2010–12
Seventh Special Report of
Session 2010–12

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 20:19

Can't find it. Which point?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 20:21

Sorry - that comment isn't clear - I can find the report but not the point which states that Ofsted will be rapidly brough in line with the standards and practices of other regulators. I've certainly seen little evidence of that happening in practice and no evidence of key aspects of it.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 14:01

The Commission is supposed to be independent but the views of the chair, Christine Gilbert, have been widely broadcast. TES reported yesterday, 'But one point Ms Gilbert is adamant about is that it should not be sidetracked into looking at the case for and against academisation. "It is pointless," she says. "It is happening and it is really hard to see that there can be any turning back."

So, no point in telling the Commission that mass conversion of academies is little to do with giving schools "autonomy" and more to do with steering them towards the constricting arms of a non-democratically accountable academy chain; that the much-trumpeted collaboration between schools isn't going to happen (only 3% of converter academies are helping other schools); that academy conversion isn't a silver bullet for raising standards; that the Government didn't consider how the DfE could oversee a large number of academies when it shoved the Academies Act through Parliament. Only now does schools minister Nick Gibb concede that "there is an issue about oversight" (TES 4 May 2012).

No, respondents must consider ways of making mass academy conversion work because, according to Ms Gilbert, it's going to happen anyway so get used to it. However much you teachers grumble, you're going to have to make it work. You know it makes sense - it's the only way to ensure all pupils are above-average.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 14:38

Finland has a large number of remote schools but is increasingly adopting local schools generated administrative and educational cooperation as a 'middle tier'

'there is a new scenario in Finland due to declining school enrolments,
declining resources in education, and an increasing workload for principals (who have
been calling for strategies to deal with these issues). Municipalities are developing ways
to transform school leadership to benefit the broader community. We found one of these
municipal reforms which had redistributed leadership at different levels: five school
principals were working as district principals, with a third of their time devoted to the
district and the rest to their individual schools. This meant also the leadership was
redistributed within the schools........

Overall, it showed signs of: rationalising resources; integrating services; increasing transparency; improving problem solving; enhancing a culture of co-operation; and developing leadership capacity........

system leadership in England is now a recognisable movement, it is
not yet a mainstream practice. Although it is strongly advocated by the national
government it is still not widely accepted by local politicians, local education officers or
governors of schools – who worry that collaboration may lead to a dilution of excellent
practice in their leading schools........

There is a tension between those system leaders who operate in national programmes that have incentivised activity through organisation, funding and professional development, such as seen in England and Victoria; and those system leaders whose roles are locally developed and contextually responsive, such as in Belgium and Finland. In such activity, professionals not only deploy their experience and skill to lead improvements, they also define the terms on which such activity is undertaken and sustained.

There are of course variations to this bottom up / top down dialectic, as has been seen
in the five case studies. If, however, a shared criterion is to develop effective system
leadership in a growing number of schools, then the following suggestion for more short
term action - Incentivise rather than legislate - may prove instructive.

The argument is that this leadership needs to come more from principals themselves
and from agencies committed to working with them. It is clear that the more bureaucratic the response the less likely it will be to work.'

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 16:26

Tim - somewhere in that long quotation is something about "municipalities" which are working with schools on collaborative programmes. This Government is weakening municipal (ie local authority) involvement in schools but hasn't decided what to put in its place.

The Government's acting rather like the White Star Line - sending off the Titanic without enough lifeboats. It's too late once the iceberg floats into view. I can just hear Captain Smith saying, "There is an issue about oversight" as the water floods in.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 17:19

Janet - Municipalities, in Finland, are indeed local councils, but, now, increasingly, with the educational element provided by serving school principals.

Here, the government has already set in train what Sahlberg calls 'lateral capacity building', in essence a local school/academy generated quasi middle tier, via academy chains, very much along the closing lines of my OECD quote, referenced above:

'The argument is that this leadership needs to come more from principals themselves
and from agencies committed to working with them. It is clear that the more bureaucratic the response the less likely it will be to work.’

The Prime Minister at the time of the sinking of the Titanic was Ramsay McDonald.

howard's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 20:24

"The PM at the time of the sinking of the Titanic was Ramsay McDonald". A cheap, party political shot, perchance? Only, McDonald was not PM in 1912; it was the Liberal Herbert Asquith.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 04:13

Not really. Just incompetence.

'Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald called a general election to seek legitimacy for his 'national government' coalition. He was returned to power with 556 pro-national government MPs, of which 471 were Conservatives. The Labour Party expelled Macdonald for what was perceived as treachery. The new national government forced through the measures that Macdonald's Labour colleagues had vehemently opposed.'

1934 was, of course, the year of 'Sink the Titanic', the Kaiser plotting evilly to sink the great ship, and the year the White Star Line ceased to operate as a separate company.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 17:29

The argument is that this leadership needs to come more from principals themselves and from agencies committed to working with them. It is clear that the more bureaucratic the response the less likely it will be to work.

Exactly. They should tattoo that on the forehead of every director of children's services.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 17:59

Indeed Ricky. The implications of that would be that the directors of childrens' services would stop focusing on their own Ofsted gradings and start focusing on listening to what schools actually need instead.

But then they would be put into special measures themselves which has even worse consequences for schools.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 05/05/2012 - 17:56

I confess I did a doubletake when I spotted that.

Politicians! The rascals!

johnbolt's picture
Wed, 09/05/2012 - 12:22

This commission is not independent partly because it's set up by Academy sponsors who have a vested interest in the outcomes - the chains want more business - but also because Christine Gilbert has effectively prejudges the whole process by announcing her conclusions before it even starts.

More importantly though her TES interview betrays a sad misunderstanding of what commissioning actually means - school to school collaboration is important but in a system as complex and diverse as ours more is needed.

This argument is developed on the SEA blog at

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