Stick a foot in the door of influence

Elaine Williams checks out some seats of power that are lying vacant

Fancy a change, getting out of the classroom, following up interests, seeing the bigger picture? It might not require a drastic switch to a new job or profession. If you have a passion or a bee in your bonnet about an issue, seeking public appointment and serving on a relevant government quango for a few days a month might be just the ticket. Concerned about nature conservation? English Nature is looking for members. Racial equality? The Commission for Racial Equality might be one to consider. Closer to home, the Department for Education and Skills is interested in applications from heads and teachers for appointments to 11 non-governmental public bodies, including the Teacher Training Agency; the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Investors in People UK Ltd and the Student Loans Company.

You don't have to be a dignitary or even at the top of a career ladder to reach these giddy heights. In particular, the Women's National Commission and the Government's Women and Equality Unit are encouraging women from all walks of life to consider public appointment. Of the 30,000 people serving on public bodies, only one-third are women. The Government wants to raise this figure to 50 per cent by encouraging women to realise that they may well have some expertise or personal attribute to contribute to public life.

Wendy Robinson, 51, is IT manager at Craven further education college, Skipton, north Yorkshire, but has a passion for archaeological conservation, particularly underwater. In a former life, before she took a career break to have a family and moved to Skipton, she was head of the archaeological conservation laboratory at the National Museum of Wales, where she specialised in shipwrecks. "As the children were growing up I had to retrain. There aren't many shipwrecks in Skipton, so I went into IT and taught it at college for eight years before becoming manager."

She kept up her archaeological interests, largely as membership secretary of the National Archaeological Society. When membership to the Advisory Committee for Historic Wreck Sites came her way she welcomed the opportunity to pursue her interest at a national level. The appointment, she says, gave her renewed vigour for her day job. She also runs four archaeology courses a year at Craven college.

The historic wrecks committee meets three times a year in London and generates three weeks of reading documents and preparation. Though Ms Robinson is a single parent and has a demanding job, she believes it's worthwhile.

"It has increased my self-confidence in realising that I have a contribution to make and that all those years before children were not wasted. Also, having to put forward arguments and learn the etiquette of meetings has made me more effective at work." She also sees it as part of stress management, despite the extra demands. "To be able to switch off from your job and become completely absorbed in something else is part of dealing with stress."

Rowena Arshad is a junior lecturer in equal opportunities in the education faculty of Edinburgh University, but now spends almost one week a month as a member of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and as a commissioner on the Equal Opportunities Commission. She says: "People at the chalk face feel they are not represented at the high levels of decision-making but it's no good complaining before you have put the system to the test." As a Chinese Indian, Ms Arshad, 42, wants to play a much more strategic role in taking forward equal opportunities in Scotland. She finds the time and energy taken up is paid off in the confidence and effectiveness gained. "If you feel strongly enough about something and are well-versed in your field, you can make a difference at public level. I was determined to see equality issues becoming mainstream in the higher education funding equation, and that is now happening."

She agrees that public office can help teachers put their work into perspective. "Teaching is very intense. You can be in one institution, one classroom even, for the entire year. Sitting on public bodies is a way of engaging with the wider world."

Members of public bodies are reimbursed for their expenses and some are paid a fee. This ranges between hundreds and thousands of pounds, depending on whether the commitment is two or three days in a year or in a week. As part of their concern to bring teachers on board, those quangos with greatest potential for teacher membership - the TTA; National College for School Leadership; General Teaching Council - pay the costs of supply cover. A list of appointees to quangos is at: www.cabinet-office.gov.uk central1998papaupaupoint.htm. To nominate yourself, contact the Public Appointments Unit, Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall, London SW1A 2AS. Tel: 0845 00 00 040. Women in Public Life Today: a guide is available on the Women's National Commission website: www.thewnc.org.uk.

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