Thursday, July 02, 2009

OFSTED's own Xena the Warrior Princess

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.


Steve O'Connell said...

Wow! Xena sounds like a breath of fresh air. I really like the idea of linking benefits to attendance/performance; money follows the kids etc. I also relate to the idea of not blaming parents.

Hopefully Xena doesn't become part of the blame culture herself though. Is she blaming teachers, schools, ministers? In a sense the problem of educating our kids is too big for any single sector to solve. We are still way behind the nations we would like to compare to. Nothing we have tried over the years seems to work especially "targets". You don't fatten a pig for market by weighing it. We certainly need a lot more effort on the fattening!
Steve O'Connell

Rina said...

As I read your concerns about under performance, I am in awe of the system here in India. The social pressure on kids to perform is so tremendous that every year we loose countless lives when the board(that's in tenth and twelfth grade)are declared. Kids hang them selves when they do not make it to cut off percentage. The vision is so narrow that do not see life beyond becoming a professional right after their school. The parents keep saving like crazy to spend for private tutions and coaching classes. It is a mad frenzy, I remember qualifying for veterinary Science, but that was not good enough, I was not allowed to go for the counseling. Since it was a prestigious college for agricultural sciences and I wanted to go, it put me off this entrance exam thing.
I can understand the concerns you are facing as the social setup in most developed country does not push the students to explore their potential to the limit, the system is becoming less productive.

For us, who have come through a very funny system where hard work and constant stress to perform is a way of life, your educational system looks like heaven. Though I always studied in private schools, we had teachers who would while away time at school to take tutions at their homes,there was utter chaos in the name of guidance. As an outsider, I feel the social fabric in UK needs more mending, the educational system will gain balance on its own as the basic ground work is good.

Do you know the system here was created by Lord macaulay who said this: Macaulay, while delivering his speech in British Parliament on Feb.2, 1835, said “I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen a person who is a beggar, or a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibres that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage and therefore I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system…”

So now the system we have here was devised to produce clerks, just imagine! And this has worked wonders as even in such a crippled system just because we have to survive and education is the best bet, it has yielded highly skilled work force.

I think to create a good educational system someday we all would realise that we need sound value education. That would also put to rest the blame game. Thanks for such bright posts. As my son enters the rat race, I am able to appreciate these posts more and more.

The upsycho said...

It's not just in the UK that parents are infantilised by schools. When my husband, in his wonderfully calm and rational way, questioned a stance taken by the head teacher in a meeting we had with her and some of her staff, she gasped that never in 20/30/200/howevermany years of teaching had a parent been so cheeky to her. Yup. That was her word. Cheeky. Can you credit it?

John Wootton said...

Donald, have you seen how CVA is calculated these days? Yet this is a cornerstone of their judgements. School leaders need a supportive system; we have just had a 2 day inspection that used a deficit model and staff were told on the first morning that although the school rated itself as outstanding, the inspectors would be trying to prove otherwise! Great start! Two out of the four of them were described by our students as rude due to their 'superior' attitude. Common humility and courtesy and the ability to have a good healthy supportive debate about facts and opinions is great he last 2 inspections we have had they weresadly lacking. Xena can work on that for a start.

Martin M-B said...

If that impressed you, have a look at the biog on the Ignite website:

FATPEN said...

I had a great time at school. An infant pupil 30+ years ago. I had lovely kind teachers who spent time playing and encouraging us. I have 8 o'levels and 3A'levels. With a similar education my sister wanted to become a primary school teacher. She did so and is a fanastic teacher who has recently been bombarded with so called "advisors" who observe for 20 minutes and make descisions about a teachers performance. The negativity surrounding these observers is palpable usually because they have little or no experience of classroom teaching. and only are concerned that the lesson match exactly what is on a written lesson plan. My sister received an "inadequate" grading. This has seriously knocked her confidence, self worth and she now doubts her ability as a teacher. The inadequate arose as the lesson had not specifically matched the lesson plan - at the end of the lesson the children will be able to collect data and at the end of the lesson they had collected lists of information which the observer said was not data!!!!. I understand that teaching practices should be reviewed but it seems to me that there is so much undermining carried out by Xena types who know best! Is getting rid if the caring teachers who just want to teach a good idea? rather than giving them more mountains of paperwork. The teachers who excel at the paperwork more often than not , want to be in management rather than in the classroom. I think that says it all!! When can teachers have a voice and when will they be left alone to encourage and inspire our youth instead of being worn out, uninspired and bogged down with paperwork that just exists to prove to ofsted that they should be there.

Donald Clark said...

Penny. You may have had a nice time at school but 40% leave the primary school system you describe unable to function in terms of reading, writing and numeracy. Part of theproblem was the amateurish 'whole word' teaching that infected these schools in the 80s/90s. Leaving teachers to simply do what they want is a non-satrter, as many don't know what's works. We had this system and it failed too many students. There's avery good reason for lesson plans - they work! It stops lazy teachers winging it, and failing their learners.

You're simply wrong to criticise advisers on the grounds of having no teaching experience. They are all ex-teachers. Inspectors are not simply plucked off the street.

I sort of agree with you on paperwork, yet much of this is generated by the profession itself (Zena also agrees). In my four years as a Governor, I was bombarded by reports, written by teachers, which were overlong, irrelevant and ineffective. The next worst culprit were the Local Authorities, mostly ex-teachers.