Liz Cleaver is to take BBC education into the future. As Janette Wolf discovered, it is a challenge she relishes
LIZ Cleaver had not been teaching long before she realised she was in the wrong job. For the new head of BBC Knowledge, a digital television channel that will start broadcasting next week, it was as though she had scaled Everest, only to discover she would have got more of a kick out of K2.
That is not to say she found teaching a breeze, it is just that Ms Cleaver is clearly a woman for whom a challenge is an open invitation to roll up her shirt sleeves.
"I taught for four years and I think it is one of the most difficult and most rewarding jobs that you could possibly do," she says, but adds:
"There's just not enough challenging roles." Faced with the career progression of departmental head, through to deputy then headteacher, she hankered for something with a bit more zip.
Now she is one of Birt's babes, a coterie of successful women broadcasters, and poised to join an elite group of grandees in charge of their own television channel.
Cleaver joined the BBC in 1984. She arrived there fresh from the classroom after answering an advertisement for a radio producer with a background in education. She wasn't a radio producer but she had done some post-graduate research which involved filming the way children learn in school. ("It was a liberating experience," she says, in a way that teaching obviously wasn't.) It proved to be enough to impress her future employers, although one suspects it was a less important factor than her prodigious capability. Cleaver radiates the kind of authority that enabled her to intimidate class troublemakers from day one as a teacher and to play hockey at county level.
This innate self-confidence, combined with a flair for innovation, led her from radio to eventually commissioning her own television series. She has a particular passion for history. Two of her series for BBC Schools - History File and The Romans - were both decorated by the Royal Television Society and BAFTA, the latter for its ground-breaking use of virtual reality. A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research on school broadcasting in 1996 revealed that History File was the most successful programme among its intended audience, with nearly 80 per cent of teachers using it.
Cleaver has a profound belief in the learning potential of the new technologies, which makes her a natural choice for the BBC's digital channel. She promises that its education service will be a fulfilling "journey" and that you'll get to your chosen destination by various modes of transport: your television, of course, but also the Internet, the telephone and fax.
The BBC has already been experimenting with the multi-media approach with some success in GCSE Bitesize, the revision series which has been proved to raise exam grades. BBC Knowledge will expand on that by offering skills-based courses and lifelong learning material. It will also make up for what she perceives as shortcomings in our education system. "What education frequently does is make so many demands: you have to do this, you have to achieve that, rather than giving people the confidence to want to find out more for themselves."
Cleaver is unfazed by recent media scepticism about the wisdom of the BBC's headlong dash into digital services. In fact it's a suggestion that causes her to arch an eyebrow rather sternly.
"I know there has been a lot of press coverage on the low level of penetration," she says. "But look at the early days of television and how many sets started off. The Government is going to switch off analogue. That's a fact. So this country is going to be digital."
Still only 40 and conspicuously successful, Liz Cleaver nonetheless admits to an admiration for the personal endeavours of others. She cites one of the Suffragettes as an example, a woman who had a job in a factory, raised a family and still found the time to mobilise the working class. "When you read things like that, you think 'My God, how the hell did you do it?'" It took nothing less than the Indian sub-continent to stop her in her tracks. "It is a magical country," she says. "We went in May - terrible time to go, temperatures were about 44 degrees. I was so thrilled, so captivated. It was like being in love." It would only have been a short matter of time before she had made her way up to the Himalayas.
BBC Knowledge goes on air on June 1. It will be available free to anyone who has digital or cable television.