Failed Schoolgirl Returns to School

Sixteen years old and having failed at school, Zenna Atkins launched her first social enterprise. She aspired to help people who appeared to share her fate: a dismal future due to a lack of academic qualifications. Today she leads the UK’s school inspection, Ofsted, successfully runs her own company, and is engaged in a wide range of social welfare activities. Read on to discover what Zenna Atkins thinks about the current and future state of the education system and her views on how technology and e-learning can play a role in making things better.

OEB: Ms Atkins, you are engaged in various social welfare activities, and you fight for equal opportunities. To what extent does education play a role in these processes?

Zenna Atkins: Given my background and current roles, my activities are often related to conventional education. I am committed to tackling problems of social disadvantage and improving life chances, especially for children who are being looked after in the public care system. Current statistics show that in England, only twelve per cent of these children get decent GCSE results (i.e. five passes including English and Maths). Inevitably, this means that they are not only socially disadvantaged but also almost always set back educationally. This, in turn, leads to problems gaining employment. Education is a hugely important factor in trying to level the playing field for these young people.
However, not all of the social projects I am involved in have a direct link to education. For example, I also currently work on a project to raise awareness of the dramatic situation of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo who are systematically abused as a tactic of warfare.

OEB: Does your personal school history have an influence on your current work as Head of Ofsted?

Zenna Atkins: It does seem unusual to have somebody who failed school now at the head of Ofsted, but, knowing personally the obvious disadvantages a lack of formal qualifications can bestow upon people, means that I am even more committed to ensuring excellent mainstream education for all. Ensuring that we narrow the gap in attainment between children who come from comfortable, educated backgrounds and those who don’t is something I feel Ofsted can play a significant role in achieving.

OEB: What do you think are the challenges facing today’s educational systems?

Zenna Atkins: Education and teachers have to do their best to assess what might be significant for children today in the future. What is the knowledge and which are the skills they might need to succeed in their personal and professional lives?

If we want to equip our children appropriately, we have to look ahead, but we also need to be alert in regard to what has already changed. We also need to question whether we are, indeed, keeping up. It is important for us to pay attention to what children surround themselves with, how they communicate, what they communicate about, and the processes by which they gain and exchange information. Incorporating these observations into the school environment might be one way of keeping young people engaged. We must keep developing the way we educate the next generation in order to keep the process relevant and inspiring.

OEB: What role do technology and e-learning play here?

Zenna Atkins: Speaking of what might be relevant in the future and recognising where young people’s interests lie, technology is a big part of the story. Children today have their networks, and some of the components are definitely electronic. They use the social web, communicate via text messaging and e-mail, and have computer skills that leave some teachers behind. It is important to realise and accept that the students may actually know about tomorrow’s topics and techniques better than educators and adults in general. We need teachers who are willing to acknowledge this.

Moreover, we need to invest in schools themselves. One of the projects I am watching with interest is ‘Building Schools for the Future (BSF)’ – the UK’s biggest-ever investment programme in school buildings. It is an initiative developed by the Department of Children, School and Families, and its aim is to rebuild or renew nearly every secondary school in England with respect to both the building itself and the ICT infrastructure.

Regarding e-learning, a 2009 US Department of Education study has revealed that on average, online students outperform those who receive face-to-face instruction. Just in terms of numbers, one in six higher education students are involved in online learning in the United States. These results indicate the route we have to take.

OEB: Ms Atkins, you have been involved in various endeavours. What is your proudest achievement to date?

Zenna Atkins: When it comes to my professional career, the project that is still nearest to my heart is the unemployment centre I set up in Cornwall when I was sixteen and had just left school. Though I haven’t been directly involved with it for many years, I’m pleased to say that I know it has gone from strength to strength. It’s still there today – alive and well.

Zenna Atkins is one of the keynote speakers at the opening plenary session on Thursday, December 3, 2009, from 09:15 – 11:00.

Zenna Atkins is one of Britain’s most acclaimed social entrepreneurs and a recognised expert in driving profitable social change through high-profile public and private organisations. She has firmly established herself as an independent voice of authority on social issues; from founding the award-winning PCSP social business and acting as an Executive Director for the social sector consultancy company Social Solutions through to reducing crime in Portsmouth. Atkins now presides as Chairman of Ofsted and is the Group Chairman of Places for People, a national property development and management company dedicated to creating neighbourhoods of choice for all. She is also the Non Executive Director on the Royal Navy Fleet executive board and Audit Committee Chair, a trustee of the Olympic Legacy Trust, and voluntary Chair of the innovative young persons’ organisation, Dreamwall.


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