Learning with a difference - Business Works

Learning with a difference


Zenna Atkins, CEO GEMS Education
he media are full of how education is not meeting the needs of society and business. Zenna Atkins, past Chair of OFSTED and now CEO of GEMS Education, talks to Roger Prentis about education in general and what can be done to help young people become more valuable to employers and society.

q: How did you get into the education field?

a: In terms of formally into it, OFSTED was my first experience: I wasn’t involved in education at all before that. I came into OFSTED because they were looking for a non-Executive Chairman, so not someone who was an educationalist, but someone who had had good public sector Chairing experience and someone who had a passion about children.

q: And before that?

a: I often think that I am the least qualified person for anything. I had set up and run a number of businesses that delivered social good, but I ran them as businesses, and they all worked with young people. I always chose to reinvest the profit, but the success had to be there for the businesses to be sustainable. I won lots of awards at the turn of the century which made me feel good.

I have always been the sole earner in my family and sole carer, so the erratic nature of my business was not good. It was not the amount you earn in a year, but personal cash flow that was crippling me. Over the period of a year, I would earn enough, but in the leaner times it was hard. I have always sat on the Boards of Charities and done charitable work, and some of the private sector Boards on which I sat as a non-executive started to pay me. I applied to become Chairman of the local NHS and got that position on Portsmouth City Primary Care Trust from about 2001 to 2007 and that gave me a disproportionately high national profile.

PCTs were new and acted as the vehicles through which the health care needs of the local population were met. When I took over, the health economy that I inherited was bust, but by year two we were making a surplus for re-investment. That was just by running it properly, but, as a result, we got a high profile. I’ve always had an ability to run things properly. That’s not because I was the least bit competent, it is just because I know how to back winners. I set very clear objectives, “We are here to improve the health of people and improve healthcare services within the budget we have allocated” and get on with it.

I didn’t take the first choice job as Finance Director or even Chief Executive, I chose the job that I would be best at. I am also opinionated and have things to say, so that helped to get me the highprofile publicity.

I then applied to go on the Board of the Royal Navy and got onto that so I have done some public service there and in 2004 I became Chairman of a property development and management company and have some public service experience there as well.

My own consultancy still focused on Corporate Social Responsibility with blue chip clients and developing societal solutions through business methodology. I suppose that when I tried for the job at OFSTED, because I have worked with children over the years as a professional and set up businesses to work with children, although I wasn’t doing very much when I applied, I think that I could evidence that I had a good understanding of the needs of children.

The bit that appealed to me about it, funnily enough, wasn’t the schools inspection part, but that it was going to be the combined OFSTED which included children in social care (which is a personal passion) and effectively all learning apart from universities. And, of course, my personal learning, because I didn’t do well at school, has been through work-based learning. So, I have a real interest in that and alternative routes to success – alternative pathways – and so that was my motivation in applying. Obviously I did reasonably well on paper and also at interview and so got the job.

I set up the new OFSTED in 2006. I came in to amalgamate it and stayed there until 2010 just a few weeks ago.

q: What was the most exciting and rewarding part of the OFSTED job?


a: I think that working with Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, was certainly the reason that I stayed. Running a Government Department is tough. Everything you want to do – if you want to deliver successful, efficient, well-run, high-impact, outcome-focused activities – you find that every single fibre of the Civil Service works against you. The desire to run away a lot of the time was enormous, with every fibre working against you, and I am sure that Christine experienced the same frustration, but she was far calmer and far more calculating in the way she got through the problems.

We worked very well together and delivered £80 million in annual savings to the tax payer and doubled the amount of time that the School Inspectors spent in the classroom. We introduced a real focus on the leadership teams in schools and Children’s Homes, we reduced the bureaucracy and form filling and concentrated on high-quality judgements from highly qualified individuals.

The thing I am most proud of was the introduction of inspectors to front-line Children’s Services which had never happened before. When we took over the thing – it is a bit boring, but there was a measure of performance assessment where the Local Authority would send a set of statistical returns to the Department (which is now known as Education) and it would do something to the figures and then send them to OFSTED which would then grade them from “fail” to “outstanding”. It was possibly the most appalling thing that I had ever heard and how anyone could have any confidence in such a measure, I have no idea.

I wanted to scrap the system from the first day that I walked in, but the Department of Education had to do an eighteen month consultation which only showed exactly how right we were and how truly appalling the system was. Anyone who was responsible for the creation and implementation of that system should really hang their head in shame. So, we introduced front-line inspection of Children’s Homes which has been a major change. We got rid of people who were not performing and really put the power back in the hands of children and sometimes Social Workers and I am really proud of that.

q: What was the worst thing about the OFSTED job?

a: I think that I was naïve when I started at OFSTED. Although I had experience of public sector work before, I had never run a Government department and had therefore never been so “in” with the Whitehall community. I was very surprised to see how counter-cultural I was in that environment. They don’t embrace technology and they don’t understand customers. When I sat on the Board of a Quango, I asked them who the customers were when I arrived and after 45 minutes they still hadn’t answered so I knew that I had made a mistake in joining that Board. If you don’t know who your customer is, you cannot deliver anything. You have to know who your customers are, what you do and how you do it.

I was dismayed at the fabric and the fibre of the Whitehall Civil Service machine which exists to self serve. I believe that it once existed to serve Ministers and the Government, but now it is very self serving – particularly if you want to get to the top. Just before you take the big jump in the Civil Service, you have to have done at least twenty different jobs, for none of which you were actually an appropriate subject expert.

The Service is incredibly big and unwieldy. It is risk averse with regard to risk that has not been directly home grown in the Department. It has no sense of the risk to do with what it does, nor the risk of doing what it has always done – which is why it gets the same results every time. It has no sense of the risk of doing nothing either, but it can scope the risk of changing its business practices until the cows come home. That I found most frustrating.

I also found the over-population of the Civil Service very difficult. I have never worked in an environment where everything is staffed to that degree. For example, a Minister would desire to find how we could get a particular job done and that would be passed up and down through 30 or 40 people before a paper came back to the Minister saying, “Minister, why are you considering this at all?” The unbelievable waste I found shocking.

If I was to sum up the thing that I found most surprising about Whitehall, it would be that there were two things the whole of it was absolutely terrified of. One was the media and the other was the public. How you can have something that is designed as the Government’s machinery to deliver the democratic output that is terrified both of the media and of the public, I cannot understand.

q: Would you say that the education sector is over “politicised”?

a: I think that this Government is trying to put some power back on the ground by saying, “Parents, you can run a school and you can leave the Local Authority so you are not over meddled with”.

I think that Government cannot, or should not, fail to realise that one of its most important responsibilities is the education of young people. If you mess that up, then everything else goes. If you do not train your future work force, give it skills, competence, confidence and have it be happy and successful for the future, then it will not be able to deliver the aspirations of the Government of the day, whatever they may be. If the work force is not all of these things and able to innovate, then the country simply goes under. The single biggest difference between the G8 countries and the developing world is education.

You can’t expect any Government not to have an interest in education. And you can’t expect them not to be overly concerned either. I think that this Government is committed to trying to get the best out of education for our children whilst not actually micro-managing it. That’s all we can ask for I think.


q: Do you think that there is more to education than exams?

a: I think that there are three big challenges that need to be grasped at the moment in the pre-16 age group and not many are doing it at the moment First, it is important how you learn and what you learn so, as educationalists, we need to understand how each individual child learns and we have to creatively match the resources to the way that they are going to learn. That’s just number one and we aren’t very good at even grasping that.

Number two is that we are in the 21st century! Hello! We are already 10 years into it and we are still delivering Victorian education which is totally alien to our clients, which are the kids. Nobody teaches them how to use their iPods, they just beg for them and learn how to use them in a nano-second. I gave my iPhone to a six year old to look at and they worked out instantly how to use it – even how to hack into my iTunes password! That’s just how kids learn. It is very intuitive, very technologically based and that is how education should be delivered to this group to be most effective.

The third thing is that there has been a total power shift. Teachers in schools no longer have the power: the parents and pupils do. All the learning content is now available on the World Wide Web and it’s downloadable into your handbag as a parent. Equally, every child in Secondary School has a mobile phone and they can video what the teacher is doing and send it to their parents or post it on the Web. That way I have learned on a number of occasions what is actually happening in a classroom in a way it would never have been possible in the past. Therefore, you have to engage with parents and pupils in a way you have never done in the past. So, that’s the pre-16 situation!

q: What about the post-16s?


In the bag
Post-16, the thing we have singularly failed to do for generations is to provide a credible alternative to university. At the moment, university is the only credible thing to do at 18 and we desperately need that credible alternative. We absolutely have to have one, because university itself is no longer credible.

15% of graduates are leaving university and are unable to get jobs and straight-A students are unable to get into university. There is a vast swathe of unbelievably complex courses and vast ranges of opportunities available at universities that are desperately under-populated. Some courses are running with less than five students. We have to ask, “What is going on? What is a credible alternative?”

I absolutely love and am actively trying to make sure that we can be part of delivering the National Citizen Service. It may be one small step towards developing a credible alternative route in stead of university. It is borne out partly by Cameron’s beliefs in the National Service concept where all walks of life have to come together to achieve a common task. It lets you show leadership, ability, team spirit etc. Now, we don’t want to do that through the Armed Forces, so what would be an alternative to bridge that gap? A society that allows social mobility. Again, it would be something valuable to do if you didn’t go to university that would give you a useful route out to a career. I think that is quite exciting and I would like to be part of the National Citizen Service, but I don’t think that it is the whole answer.

q: What about the financing of continuing education with fees etc?

a: We need to look at how we can develop young people that are fit for work. We know that employers want certain skill sets, flexibility and adaptability is now the most important factor. We want people who are adaptable, resourceful and that can learn – and know how to learn – and can access the learning material we have in our business in order that they can learn about our business. In my business, I need someone with these skills and that is where the credible alternative needs to come in.

Universities were designed hundreds of years ago when information and knowledge were controlled by a very small number of people. The only way at that time to broaden your mind and access that was to go through school and acquire a certain amount from your teachers and then go on to university. That was the only way – you couldn’t get the books or knowledge and information anywhere else. Nowadays, all of that is available online – in my handbag, if you like.

Zenna Atkins, CEO GEMS Education

I think that there are other ways of financing continuing education, learning and developing fully-rounded human beings after they reach the age of 18. There are lots of opportunities and, at the moment, we just end up going round the same conversation about universities. If we keep having the same conversations about what we have always done in the past, we will continue to do the same into the future.

If we start talking about what a credible alternative would look like and how we would finance it, then things will develop. It has to be led by employers because they are largely disappointed with what comes out of university because they do not see a work force that can actually work! So, let’s change the conversation so that different things can start to happen!

In terms of the funding of universities themselves, then there also has to be an alternative. If we are going to continue offering 4000 courses then there is little wonder that we can’t do it properly or economically.

q: You have said that role models are important?

a: Yes, there are role models everywhere. It can be in your family, someone down the road, someone you have seen on television. There are lots out there, but where we go wrong is when we create false expectations. I see lots of projects that are about exposing young people to role models, that impose a role model on them, and I don’t think that really works. You aspire to the person that you really admire for your own personal reasons.

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