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.


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