By Maureen McTaggart
Zenna AtkinsOfsted's Zenna AtkinsChildren are using technology in a way that has left an enormous number of teachers and schools behind. And it's creating a big gap between "what pupils get out of school and what is relevant to their lives”, according to Zenna Atkins, chair of schools inspectorate Ofsted.

In an astonishingly frank presentation at Channel 4's "What Comes Next?" summer conference, she said we live in a "sound bite culture" where children are getting their information and knowledge from each other via mobile devices yet education is still "very long winded". (Audio here.)

“Children don’t have much except lessons, which they find boring a lot of the time, but they are expected to have a long attention span," she said. We’re going to see a much bigger trend of kids educating kids about the stuff they want to know, the things they want to do. They’re blue-toothing to each other, they’re texting, they’re emailing on their mobile devices. That’s how they’re acquiring their knowledge”.

Education of tomorrow is going to have to get much more focused on understanding the future and future-proofing itself in order to ensure it is delivering for tomorrow and not always delivering for today, she added. Moreover, schools and teachers should feel duty bound to work out and understand that people’s networks are different - that students now have a whole series of networks, some of which are entirely local, but all managed entirely electronically.

“We’re going to need do an awful lot more about understanding what technology of the future might look like. The kids know,” she said. But it is not all about technology.

'Lessons without relevance cause disengagement'

Zenna Atkins, who was appointed to the Ofsted board in 2006 by former Education Secretary Alan Johnson MP, believe that lessons without relevance will cause pupils to disengage from education and the minute that happens, education disengages from them. “It’s a two-way street,” she said. “We like to blame kids but anyone who is a parent of disengaged or naughty children, or any of you who were, know how quickly you get written off”.

She implored teachers to encourage children to take their learning beyond getting the right qualifications for that certain job and the notion that they will stick to it. “How many people really are doing that now, will do that?" she asked. "How many people will be much more like me and have six jobs on the go, doing a variety of different things? What did school do to prepare me for that? Nothing! Everything was about if you get a degree, you’ll do well. Is that really the 21st century?”

Describing the Building Schools for the Future programme as “a fantastic initiative”, she challenged teachers to think more about the environment in which we educate: “If you take the percentage of schools funded under BSF, do they look really modern or do they look like old schools with a bit of a modern twist?”

The other big challenge, she told the assembled audience which included many teachers, is the expectation that parents need to engage with education. Their reluctance, she said, was not always because of indifference but of feeling intimidated by teachers. As a disengaged pupil Zenna Atkins left school with one GCSE in Biology so she should know.

The 43-year old, who also works in the private sector, described how even being the boss of the Ofsted boss doesn’t make it any easier to face up to her children’s teachers. “Parents feel intimidated," she said. "Like me, a lot of them didn’t get five GCSES with English and maths. They did not go on and excel in further or higher education. Yet all the polices that are talking about how parents should engage are written by people who did get five GCSEs, who did A levels, who did go to university, who did get degrees.

'Bollocking' by teacher in front of Ed Balls 'does wonders for credibility'

"I still dread seeing my children’s headmaster. I can’t use his first name. And of course I have to deal with Mr Walker, the teacher in charge of the naughty boys at my son’s school”. She went on to tell a hilarious anecdote of the day she answered her mobile phone just as she was getting ready to go to a meeting with education secretary Ed Balls MP. "Mr Walker was bollocking me about my son's behaviour. He was furious and I am saying, 'Of course Mr Walker, I am going to do something about it,' and Ed Balls is stood behind me. It really does wonders for your credibility. No wonder I don’t like going into school, and lots of parents feel like that."

Zenna Atkins commiserated with teachers about the challenges placed on them by the ever increasing demands of the UK education system: new policy initiatives, new demands from parents and students and all the innovations in pedagogy and technology. “You are seen - and schools are seen - as the body that will be responsible for social mobility," she continued.

"It's your fault if we don’t have social mobility. It's your fault if we don’t have civilised, well-behaved children. It's your fault if we have poor parenting. It's your fault if we go into complete meltdown with a lack of understanding about climate change and what we should do. And I’ve just read the sustainability strategy for schools and now it’s your fault if we have an influx of terrorism into this country."

'It’s my view that culture eats strategy for breakfast every day'

But she said the biggest challenge for schools will be getting and keeping the right people. Especially given the Government's announcements about 21st Century schools and the White Paper, the recent ministerial changes in the DCSF and BIS and the uncertainty around public sector funding.

“The reality is we’re pretty broke so you’re not going to get lots of money to fund your innovation, even with a new government," she added. "What you’re going to have to do is think differently. Use your young people and use yourselves as educators to create your great ideas and don’t just dismiss them because you think somebody will sit there and say you’re bonkers. It’s the ideas that allow us to change and it’s the people that make it happen."

Provding the most upbeat moments of "What Comes Next?", she urged educators to develop their own confident culture of innovation. "It’s my view that culture eats strategy for breakfast every day," she said. "Great culture will drive an organisation while the strategy just sits on the back shelf. If you have the best strategy and a poor culture, nothing happens.”

More information

Audio of Zenna Atkins' presentation
More soon on Matt Locke and Lucy Parker at "What Comes Next"

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