Maggie Semple is in charge of the education section of the Millennium preparations. Heather Neill found she talks softly but carries a big ambition
MAGGIE SEMPLE rarely raises her voice. She has been in a position of authority, one way or another, for most of her working life, but she knows that controlling a situation does not necessarily require extra decibels. She bumped into some former pupils recently and they said, "We remember you. You never shouted at us."
She says: "I tell people, my voice is too precious to waste. When it gets quieter and lower, then you know it's serious."
Semple is in a very high-profile job indeed these days, but a finite one. She was appointed in October 1997 to head the education section of the Millennium preparations or, to give her her official title, she is director of the learning experience for the New Millennium Experience Company.
She will be in post until the end of 2000. She sees this period - an exhausting, completely absorbing and exciting few years - as a temporary distraction from her life-time's commitment to arts education, to fighting for every child's right to arts in the curriculum. Nevertheless, she says of the Millennium plans: "There is no point in us being a firework. All the projects have a legacy component."
Maggie Semple's parents came to England from Guyana in the 1950s, and she was born in London. She went to Shelburne Girls' High School in Holloway Road and then to Worcester College, London University, where she took a first degree in the teaching of dance.
Dance has always been a passion and even now she makes time for it. Until a month ago she had been at a class by 9am every Sunday - "and then to Sainsbury's. On Friday evenings I do Pilates (low-impact exercise) and every other weekend reflexology. Every so often I'm invited to teach dance and when I do it reminds me of the importance of the lyrical side in my life, of being physically flexible. I have to keep both sides of my brain working. When I get aches and pains I know it's because I haven't moved enough."
Between 1985 and 1987 she worked as a professional dancer with Extemporary Dance Theatre. An MA at Sussex followed the first degree and a period of teaching, culminating in running Michael Marland's performing arts department at North Westminster School.
He says she was "absolutely superb, a pleasure to work with. You could say she was a pioneer in dance for all, leading dance in a mixed school. She used to leave the folding doors open during dance lessons and parents often saw what was going on and loved it."
Semple left North Westminster at the end of 1988 to run the AEMS (Arts Education in a Multicultural Society) project for three years. With funding from the Arts Council, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Gulbenkian Foundation, this placed artists from culturally diverse backgrounds in schools, colleges and universities.
By this time, Semple was already on numerous committees, including several at the Arts Council, and in 1991 she became head of education there. Meanwhile, according to notes provided by her office, she "wrote the dance curriculum" in 1990. That, she says, "sounds a bit grand. I was the dance person on the national curriculum working group for PE." Her advocacy helped to keep dance on the agenda. While some complained that dance was an art-form and should not be consigned to PE, she decided to see this as an advantage: at least dance was in the curriculum.
Her time at the Arts Council saw a good deal of change. She began with "one-and-a-half staff and a secretary, and a budget of pound;110,000". When she left in 1997, by then director of education and training, her department numbered 10 and had a budget ofpound;20 million.
Semple's name crops up frequently on influential committees: the Further Education Funding Council's Widening Participation Committee, chaired by Helena Kennedy; the European Commission's Kaleidoscope Fund and the Council of Europe's Arts, Creativity and Young People's Initiative are a few of them. She is also a member of the All Souls Group, Oxford, (a gathering of the educational great and good), a council member and fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, as well as a school governor - and she sits on various boards, including that of the Rambert Dance Company.
Her present appointment seems to suit her admirably: she talks animatedly about the commitment of sponsors and her staff - five at HQ and 12 regional advisers - and the excitement of the rush towards 2000. "Imagination, creativity, innovation are words we use all the time - and they are words you don't hear often enough these days." She wants the "nine million kids in the country" to experience the millennium celebrations at the Dome and locally as something they will never forget, "just as older people remember being taken to the Festival of Britain in 1951". Her personal regime seems to work, too. Her days are long, sometimes starting at 5am, but she can just "crash out" at bed-time and be "as bright as a button" after four hours.
Dynamic Semple certainly is, enthusiastic and a terrific optimist, but can someone who gets so much done really be as nice as she seems? There may occasionally be "a clash of styles", something she admits to herself. One former colleague at the Arts Council describes her as "a strong-minded lady who doesn't suffer fools gladly", but saysshe is also "charismatic, a great front-person with a talent for presentation. She has an eye for talent in others and creates space for them and affords them opportunities."
The Millennium doesn't leave much space for anything else in Semple's life at present - lap-top computer and mobile phone accompany her on rare weeks away - but she is not keen to divulge anything much about her personal life anyway.
She has a brother who runs his own design company and a sister who is musical and has just become a mother again in her forties. Semple went through a period of wanting a family herself - "It lasted about a week" - but she enjoys being an aunt. She lives in Islington, north London -"the cheaper end".
For now she is enjoying the challenge of facing that looming deadline. "It really focuses you. It's so concentrated." And afterwards? "Who knows!" It seems safe to predict that Maggie Semple won't be kicking her heels for long.