Zenna Atkins is the Chair of OFSTED and a force of nature. A good 6 foot in heels she tells it as it is and isn’t afraid to have a go at all of those educational moralisers who use OFSTED as an excuse for their own failures. Expelled from school with only one o-level, she’s become an experienced social entrepreneur and operator in large public sector bodies. I spoke on the same platform as her at a Channel 4 event this week and she booted things off in fine fashion. You can see her at Portsmouth games just behind the corner flag bad mouthing opposition players.
Don’t blame ofsted
She’s more than a little impatient with teachers and others who simply point elsewhere, usually to OFSTED, when people try to identify weaknesses and improve education. Sure OFSTED has its weaknesses, but who would deny that bad teaching exists, that there are too many people teaching who don’t want to be there and shouldn’t be there, that schools are poorly run fiscally? Are we really saying that they should not be inspected?
Schools infantalise parents
Her second theme was a powerful argument against blaming parents. One teacher in the audience described ‘the prejudice of parents’. The simple fact is that 60% of parents left school with qualifications we regard as being less than satisfactory. School, for the majority of parents, is somewhere they do not want to revisit, as it is where they were marked as failures. She herself describes how she feels nervous when visiting schools and often feels as if she’s being told off in conversations with staff. No wonder parents are not engaged with the education of their children. Schools infantalise parents.
Is the curriculum relevant? Not on your Nellie. As an employer she looks for autonomy and whether the students has stuck a paper round, rather than qualifications. So much of what is taught is only relevant to the minority of students. The lack of relevance to survival, never mind employment is astonishing.
Also an advocate of technology she has no time for those who shilly shally behind excuses for not getting on with the task of using the technology that learners already use in their daily lives.
Now here’s why I love Xena. At the end of her talk she rattled out some politically sensitive ideas around ‘kids teaching kids’, ‘ linking benefits to ‘school attendance and performance’, making the money ‘follow the kids’. I’ve never heard public servants speak like this in public and being so unafraid of the press. Xena then shot off for her appraisal, leaving a shocked audience in her not inconsiderable wake.
Give me 10,000 Xenas
We need far more people like Xena on public sector boards. She’s smart, understands her domain, has empathy with the people she’s trying to help, and is vocal. Far too many boards are packed with people who shy way from controversy or contention. We need people who scrutinise, debate and work towards change. In education there are far too many people making decisions on the state sector while sending their own kids private. Far too many who are part of some small network, often ‘London-based’. Then there’s the tokenism of diversity, focusing on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. The system is atherosclerotic, gummed up with the plaque of tokenism and traditionalism.