Ofsteds Chair places her foot firmly in her mouth
Zenna Atkins, until last week the fairly anonymous Chairwoman of the regulator Ofsted, sought to correct that widely held perception, just before she jumps ship into a private sector job, by airing her views on incompetent teachers. Big mistake.
Her parting shot is unlikely to please her new employers. Atkins told the Sunday Times, over the weekend that “Every school should have a useless teacher,” adding in street lingo: “One really good thing about primary school is that every kid learns how to deal with a really s*** teacher.” Having a useless teacher, according to the Ofsted chief, “helps kids realise that even if you know the quality of authority is not good, you have to learn how to play it”. It’s the kind of remark that will stick with her for the rest of her professional life, and not in a good way. Unfortunately her contribution will merely provide more ammunition for critics of Ofsted at a time when the future role of the organisation is under Review and the beleaguered organisation is in need of some good friends. Academic researchers have established that the quality of teaching is the single most important variable affecting pupil performance in schools. There is a tranche of studies too which spell out just how poor teaching damages children’s life opportunities and particularly the most disadvantaged. Professor Michael Barber has reminded us that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. And indeed The Chief Inspector of Schools Christine Gilbert, has remarked in a report on a “stubborn core” of incompetent teachers giving dull lessons. The Sunday Times in a Leader destroys her arguments with some ease. It opined (11 July) ‘The real problem with the attitude expressed by the outgoing Ofsted head is its acceptance of teaching incompetence as the norm in state education. Ofsted is, after all, the Office for Standards in Education. It is hugely powerful. If it condones low standards, who will speak up for excellence in schools?’
Using Atkins logic, not all schools inspectors should be competent because having to deal with them might assist Heads develop their people and crisis management skills. Terence Blacker in the Independent, responding to Atkins comments railed against acceptance in the educational establishment of ‘ mind-boggling mediocrity’. He went on ‘ It is time for the standing of educators in society to upgraded, for teaching to be honoured and rewarded as a profession for the elite, not a cushy billet for the lazy or incompetent. The sub-standard should not be allowed to pass down a sour heritage of defeat and cynicism to future generations. As for a chair of the Office for Standards in Education who actually seems to be defending low standards in education, perhaps she might also be gently performance-managed out of the business.’ Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools at Ofsted, said in the 1990s there were 15,000 incompetent teachers who should be sacked. Sir Cyril Taylor, when he was Chair of the SSAT ,which supports Academy and Specialist schools, and who advised both Tory and Labour Education Secretaries ,claimed in 2007 there were 17,000 teachers poor teachers . The General Teaching Council for England, two years ago, agreed that there might be 17,000 “sub-standard” teachers. Yet in 10 years only 18 have been struck off for incompetence. Clearly poor teaching damages children but it also acts as a drag anchor on improving standards in schools and throughout the system. You would have thought that given that this issue impacts on politicians standards agenda that they would have dealt with it. But they haven’t to date. Although Atkins was expressing her personal view (and qualified it somewhat later in a BBC Radio 4 interview,) rather than Ofsted policy, it happens to accord neatly with an establishment attitude, shared by unions, that incompetent teachers and teaching is not really such a problem . There are in any case other priorities. However, the quality of teaching in the classroom and weeding out poor teachers from the system is now moving to centre stage of the education agenda .
If teachers are rated as poor they must either be supported, to help them improve or, if they are unable or unwilling to receive such support, removed altogether from the profession for the sake of our children. It really is as simple as that, but that is not to underestimate the task, given that some producer interests are unprepared even to acknowledge that there is a problem in the first instance let alone to address it . So over to our politicians.